The End of This Blog, Beginning of Another

Hello, all!

Thank you so much for your support this last year in following and reading my posts on this blog. I have decided, however, that it is time for this blog to be retired, and I no longer will be posting on it (with the exception of possibly one more time).

All my posts, however, will still be kept in tact at my new blog, which is where I also will continue to write. You can find my new blog, Gathering At Golgotha, at http://orthodoxyouthministry.wordpress.com, and it ought to be up and running fully in the next couple days, as I am doing a bit of overhaul on the whole thing.

Thank you again for all your support and readership!

In Christ,
Christian

Message To St. Michael, Van Nuys

Hello, all!

Today, I had the privilege and honor of giving a “homilette” at St. Michael Church in Van Nuys, and I figured that it might not hurt to share it with you all! I would be remiss (and likely plagiarizing) not to thank Kenda Creasy Dean for some of the finer points of the homily. Her books, Almost Christian and Practicing Passion, are constant sources of inspiration for me.

So without further ado:

Listen to the message!

In Christ,
Christian

Thinking Theologically About Youth Ministry: Jesus Is A Person! Pt. 2

In my last post, I began to discuss some thoughts surrounding the Personhood of Jesus Christ and the implications this has for youth ministry. Obviously, this conversation is one that could reach into eternity, but I don’t know that such a conversation would necessarily bear much fruit; at some point, we need to get our hands dirty and just do ministry. But I hope that these little reflections and considerations do, in some way, bear much fruit for you in your approach to youth ministry. These thoughts have shaped my own ministry, and I trust that the Lord is doing with my work whatever pleases him. So without further ado, let’s return to the discussion of Jesus’ Personhood!

Jesus as Person means that He is active in the world and can be acted upon. I understand that such language as saying that “God can be acted upon” almost makes it sound like He is some force in nature or some pagan deity that is compelled by good actions or well-pleasing sacrifice. This is not what I mean, but rather I mean that His heart is one that is moved by the sufferings of his people. God is not a distant God that is unaffected by the anguish in the lives of humans. His heart is soft, and our pain affects Him in a way that causes Him to do something about it; this is what I mean that God can be acted upon.

In the Old Testament, God is actively involved in the world and the story of his people, even from the very beginning. The book of Genesis begins with God creating the world. He speaks, and things pop up where things were not before. He speaks light into existence; He speaks creepy-crawlies into the world; He speaks all the birds into their being, sending them forth to fly around the world in joy. It is through His Word that almost everything is made. The one exception to this rule is, of course, humanity. It is regarding humanity that God first takes counsel within Godself before acting: “Let Us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen 1:26). God then acts: “God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7).

From the beginning of God’s relationship with humanity, we see that God is intimatelyinvolved. It is through God’s Mouth-to-nostril act that the first man comes to be. God is active from the beginning of our relationship with Him. Moreover, after the fall, God walks through the Garden, looking for Adam and Eve: “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9). Interestingly enough, this is the only time we ever see God walking in the Garden. Many of us have re-written the story in our minds to involve a God who “walks with Adam” in the Garden, but that simply isn’t in the Scriptures. (Seriously. Check.)

This is a myth. It never happens. Never…never.

It is only after they fall that God comes to walk with them. After the consequences of humanity’s action are pronounced, God does something strangely tender (albeit gruesome). He kills an animal and “made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21). Even in the fall, the very thing that supposedly earns us God’s ill favor, He is seen to be providing for His people.

But God can also be acted upon, for His heart is not far from hearts of His people. In Exodus, the Israelites (the ones who “struggle with God,” Gen. 32:28) are in captivity in Egypt and being forced to build for Pharaoh a testament to Pharaoh’s greatness, and as one can imagine, they aren’t too happy about it, so they begin to complain and cry out to God. But God does not remain distant. Instead, He goes to an unlikely fellow, Moses, an elderly shepherd with a stutter who has been exiled from Egypt for murder. When God in the Burning Bush encounters Moses, the Lord says to him, “I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians…” (Ex. 3:7,8). God’s own interest in his people is such that He hears their cry and sees their affliction, and it is this cry and affliction that moves God to act. God has revealed His own heart in this action; His heart is for His people, and He will respond to their cry.

It is eventually this same heart, the heart moved by the afflictions of His people, that moves Him to become human in the Person of Jesus Christ, in Whom He actively reaches into the lives of people. Jesus’ earthly ministry is marked by copious amounts of healing, raising people from the dead, and (most joyfully) turning water into wine because someone didn’t plan for so many people. This Jesus Christ, Himself the Incarnate Word of God, is the same Word that speaks the world into existence from non-existence, and it is He who looks broken, dying humanity in the face and responds with compassion. The cries of the blind Bartimaeus reach His ears (Mk. 10:46-52), and He acts, and in this way, He reveals that His heart is one that does not remain unaffected by human travail. Moreover, people try to silence Bartimaeus, suggesting that the Master does not have time for him, but it is this that causes Bartimaeus to cry out all the more loudly until the Word of God takes pity on him. Jesus hears the cries of His people and is moved by them.

All of this of course, isn’t even to mention His reaction to the death of His friend, Lazarus, which is contained in the shortest, yet most poignant verse of the New Testament: “Jesus wept” (Jn. 11:35). Jesus faces the anguish of the separation caused by death, and this time it is not only as the Lord who watches His people perish, but as a Friend who has lost his friend to the grave. Jesus, Who reveals Himself to be fairly fond of humanity, in this moment shows us that He is not above being heartbroken by the hopelessness of the human condition. We are destined for death, and it makes Him cry. This is our Jesus, the Almighty King, the Good Shepherd – He looks at death and weeps.

Jesus truly weeps for Lazarus that day, but He also weeps for all of dying, broken humanity. His heart breaks over the suffering child whose father dies suddenly. He weeps for the parents of a drug addict, and He mourns the pain of the drug addict herself. This is our Jesus; He is the one that looks at our broken little hearts and reveals to us His own broken heart.

Okay, Christian, I get it. Jesus moves in the world and His heart breaks over us, but so what? Doesn’t that mean that we should stop doing stuff that breaks His heart? Doesn’t that mean we should try to keep kids from doing drugs or engaging in behaviors that lead them right into the place that makes Jesus cry?

Whoo. Your questions are truly incisive.

Often, we think that our ministries must be about helping young people engage in lives that don’t make the Baby Jesus cry. We attempt to engage our youth in retreats and seminars that teach them the virtues of sexual purity (which, by the way, goes far beyond waiting for marriage and not looking at pornography), but very rarely do we ever, like Jesus, look into the crypts of their broken little hearts that long to be loved with a Love that is stronger than death. Even more rarely do we weep over what we behold in them. Even less rarely do we, like Jesus, bravely enter those crypts of the heart and bring to life the dead that are buried there. But since, again, it is important to remember that all ministry is incarnational – that is, revealing something about the God we profess to follow – we need to think about what God’s Personhood, which is active and acted upon, means for us.

Too often I hear people talk about the need to “keep kids in the Church.” I am so tired of hearing this phrase that I just about want to puke. But what is it about this phrase that is so upsetting? Is it that I don’t want young people to find a life in the beauty of the Church? Is it that I think they’re going to be okay without living the Sacramental and ascetic life of the Church? No. It’s not this. I want these things for our young, but the question at hand is whether their simple attendance at Church means that their broken hearts are actually mended in the process. I fear that these young people are not being rightly ministered to and that these young people’s needs largely go unmet because they largely go unknown.

I spoke recently with a young man who is in the process of wandering from the Church, and he stated that he knew that the people of his church community loved him and would do for him anything they could if they knew something was wrong. Sweet, right? Yes, but he was also fairly certain that these same people (the ones who would do anything for him) didn’t care enough to find out whether there was anything wrong. I wish I could have told him that he was incorrect, but I couldn’t. This sad reality had better cause us to do some serious reflection and ask, “What does this convey about the God we claim to follow?” The obvious answer is this: He isn’t interested in your broken heart, young man, and He isn’t going to come looking for you.

But what we see in Jesus, the one who calls Himself the Good Shepherd, is that He does care. He does go to “the lost sheep of Israel;” He does leave the 99 to go looking for the one; He does ask where Lazarus is buried so that He might bring him back to life. When we throw our hands up in the air as our Church hemorrhages youth, we reflect a God who does the same. But the truth about this God is that His Character is such that He goes looking for those that have willfully disobeyed Him. It isn’t until Adam and Eve “go missing” that God walks through the Garden to find them. In the icon of the Resurrection, we see that God fearlessly enters the places of death in order that He might take humanity by the hand and lead them into life.

When our ministries are geared toward “keeping kids in the Church,” we reflect a God who stays away from the Cross and instead bids the two thieves to pull themselves off, suggesting that it would be best if they had just stopped stealing and kept themselves off the cross! But this isn’t what Jesus does. He goes to the Cross with them; He descends into Hell, and there He continues his Genesis 3 quest of looking for those that have been lost.

This is happening in Hell, just remember that.

Our youth ministries fail because we sit back while young people leave. We scratch our heads and begin wondering what kind of program will respond to this problem or how we can sponsor appealing events that will get these kids back to Church. But does the Good Shepherd stay with the 99 and yell at the one, “Hey, you stupid sheep! Come back! You’re going to die out there. Come back! I’ve got pizza!” No! Of course he doesn’t! He risks (indeed, gives) His own life going after that stupid sheep and thereby bringing it home.

The question that we need to ask ourselves is not, “How do we get kids more involved in Church?” but rather, “How do we, the Church, get involved with these kids?” Instead of standing in the nave with crossed arms, pejoratively asking, “Where the hell have you been?” we, like the God of Genesis, better decide that it’s time to start walking through the Garden looking for these lost souls, generously asking, “Where are you that I might come and meet you there?”

Believe it or not!

Like Jesus, we need to be not afraid of facing the horror of death. We need to be not afraid to allow our hearts to break as we stare into the pits of human frailty and ask, “Where are you, child?” We need to remember that it is only by searching the depths and respective hells of these young people’s hearts that they can be offered a hand that leads them to life. Too often, we are uncomfortable at the thought of looking broken kids in the face, mostly because this brings us face-to-face with the brokenness in our own lives that we so frequently try to avoid. Such sad truth has caused me to think that the person who says, “You really have a gift for working with teenagers! They’re difficult, disrespectful, and disinterested,” really means the following: “Wow. You sure are brave to go traipsing through the crappiness of the human heart. I would do it, but adolescents annoy me, and I don’t want to face the fact that I’m less patient and kind than I usually like to think or act.” (Lord, have mercy on this person, for I am he!) When we see young people’s crap, they show us our own, and that really sucks, but such is the call in our ministry to the young.

For Jesus, to stare at Lazarus’ grave was not only to see human destiny but also to see His own. He knew that He was headed for the grave, and this is truly a grief-worthy realization. This realization, however, moved Him to tears and caused Him to act. Yet our responses are usually completely different. When we stay in the Church, beckoning youth to return instead of going into the world and looking for those we have lost, we do not convey a Jesus who crosses time and space to find them. Rather, we convey a false who Jesus who demands that boys and girls come to Church in their Sunday best and refrain from having sex during the other 6 days of the week. We want kids to get “cleaned up” before they come to us (or the Church), rather than reflecting a God who descends into the crap to meet them there. Woe to us if this is the message that our young people receive! Woe to us if it is this message that keeps them from the Church! Woe to us, for it would be better for us to have millstones tied around our necks!

Instead, we ought to be brave and know that when we meet young people (who will act like young people), they are bringing us face-to-face with the human condition, and this ought to cause us to weep, both for them and for ourselves. Our hearts must be moved and broken by their own broken hearts, and it is from this broken heart, which ultimately reflects the Lord’s broken heart, that we will have compassion and go looking for them. If our goal is just to “keep kids in the Church” (which, by the way, is a really crappy motivation for ministry), then we are going to be sorely disappointed, and we are short-circuiting and misrepresenting what it is that God does in the world: God goes looking for the lost. God’s heart is moved by the cries of his people. God descends into death in order to take by their feeble hands those who have died. This is our God: not the one who asks, “Where have you been?” but the one who asks, “Where are you?”

What are we so scared about? As ministers whose action reflect God’s own action, we need to reconsider our approach to “keeping kids in the Church.” We must consider an approach that goes after them and doesn’t give up on them. Ever. Yes, it is going to be painful. Yes, it is going to be annoying. But yes, this is exactly what Jesus does, and we are those who have been called to follow Him. And where does He go? Straight into the pit of human existence, moved by and acting within the darkness to allow not even one to escape His loving presence. Let us follow Him there, to the places of human brokenness, otherwise we are going to keep seeing kids leave the Church, and won’t that be really crappy?

Staring into the human condition is never fun. Teenagers bug us because they are nothing but expressions of the human condition.

P.S. Don’t you think that what this girl really needs is just to go to more Church?

 

Thinking Theologically About Youth Ministry: Jesus is a Person! Pt. 1

In my last post, I spoke a lot about the difference between motivations and intentions for doing youth ministry, or perhaps more accurately, a lot of motivations and intentions not to do ministry. Given that I spent a lot of time focusing on what were probably terribly theoretical concepts (a God that faces the void with young people, et al), and as a few readers pointed out, I didn’t really write too much about what this means or where to begin in understanding our own participation in God’s action in the world. This post is (hopefully) going to offer some better insight into how we actually ought to begin ministering to our young. Since I can think of no better beginning point for such a dialogue, I figured I’d begin with the Alpha Himself and discuss preliminarily the importance of understanding Jesus as Person.

Say what we will about Protestants, but when it comes to the idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus,” they really do have us Orthodox beat on that point. I was talking with Mary, a young woman who had grown up in the Orthodox Faith, and she was telling me about her experience in the Church. For Mary, the Jesus Christ of her youth was more or less the Judge who is coming in the last days in order to dish out rewards for a life well-lived or punishment for a life squandered. The implication: you best mind your P’s and Q’s, otherwise…well…you know.

Moreover, Mary’s understanding of the Church itself was that it was largely a cultural or ritualized version of aesthetic enjoyment. She wanted to invite her friends to church with her, but she was uneasy at the thought of it, fearing that her friends wouldn’t understand why-this or why-that given that she herself didn’t understand why-this or why-that. She believed the Church’s actions to be “perfunctory” (her word. She is quite brilliant.), lending no real credence or clarity to the purpose of the Church in the world or greater understanding to who God actually is. The practices of the Church, in her mind, were of the utmost importance and God became a God who was primarily concerned with making sure that people performed the Liturgy correctly and fasted strictly, and if they didn’t…well…you know.

For Mary, the big issue at hand is not that she had an understanding of the fact that God is coming into the world to judge all humanity; it is not that she understood the Church’s Liturgy to be the singularly defining action of the Church in the world. These things are true, but the problem for Mary was that (until recently, thank God) these understandings had been divorced from the basic Christian truth that God is personal.

Here’s what I mean.

To understand that God is personal is not to say that each of us is able to take God in his or her hands and make of Him whatever each wishes. This may be where the Protestants (some, not all) get it wrong. What ends up being verbalized as a “personal” relationship is often an individualized relationship with God. When I am free to perceive God however I wish, then I have begun to form Him in my own image (usually after my own likeness) and He ceases to be God; instead, I have become the creator of this god, which actually is a hollow attempt to make myself God, all while supposedly allowing me to remain a faithful disciple of the one Lord Jesus Christ. This is wrong.

Instead, to understand God as personal is to understand that God is Person (as opposed to substance or essence (more to come on this)), and He reveals this to us most concretely in the Person of Jesus Christ. If we remove this core understanding of God as a Triune Community of Three Persons existing together in Love, then everything within the Christian faith falls apart, and God becomes only a Judge who will reward some and punish others, and the Church simply becomes a social club for people who are gathered together to perform some time-honored rite that strangely brings the earthly into contact with the heavenly. All of this is true (in some ways), but such an understanding that becomes the primary Christian narrative is rooted in what simply amounts to bad theology. This is why it is important – no, essential, imperative, a matter of life-and-death that we begin to think theologically about Jesus as Person and from this make our own movements into youth ministry. So let’s start talking about what it means for Jesus to be Person.

God, in Jesus Christ, reveals that He is a distinct Other. One of the coolest things that happens in Jesus Christ’s Incarnation is that for 33 years, humans could (didn’t, but could have) concretely point to a human body and say, “There is God.” (God!) The only way that these humans could have done such is by understanding that Jesus was (and remains) a person distinct from themselves. They could only say that Jesus was Jesus because they knew He was somehow other than themselves; I can only know that there is a “You” when there is a “Me.” I know your body is different from mine because I see where my body ends and yours begins. The same is true for Jesus, then and now.

In order for Jesus to be met, He has to be located somewhere, and in His own humanity, God reveals to humanity that He is a distinct Person and must be approached as such. This means that with the same respect and care that we share for other human persons, we must approach Jesus. We don’t go up to strangers and make up stories about them and who they are, but rather, we seek to know other humans on their own terms, understanding and accepting that they are distinct and other from us. We give them room to be themselves; Jesus demands the same respect, and He truly desires that we know Him on His terms, the result of which is eternal life (John 17:3).

But, Christian, what are the implications of this for youth ministry?

Good question. Since all of ministry must be incarnational (embodied), we need to begin to respect and approach each adolescent as a distinct other. We must continually be seeking to know each individual on their own terms. We cannot make up stories about what each young person needs, thinks, or hopes for. We cannot make assumptions about each young person; we need to know them truly. The question that Jesus asks his disciples (Who do you say that I am?) must inform our approach to young people. “Who is this young person before me? What does she like? What does he fear? What does she hope for? What does he find funny?” These questions and their answers respectively respect and concretize each young person’s otherness and individuality. It is in their individuality that Jesus calls them, and we must meet this individual that Jesus calls. As we do this, our own otherness to them becomes a testimony to the otherness of God. When we become interested in the otherness and distinctness of young people, we bear witness a God who is interested in them and meets them Person-to-person. It is in this Person-to-person encounter, then, that we learn more about the significance of Christ’s own Personhood.

Jesus as Person means that He is capable of interaction and encounter. One of the problems that occurs in the minds of young people when we pray things like “Heavenly King,…who art everywhere present and fillest all things” is that young people begin to imagine that God is substance through which they move rather than a Person (or Three…) in Whom “they move, live, and have their being.” To paraphrase Andrew Root (read his books), if God is everywhere, then this is essentially saying He is nowhere, for if God is to be perceived as everywhere (in this substance mindset), then He ceases to be a person that can be encountered. In order to know the light, I have to have had an experience of the dark. The reason I knew I was hanging out with Mary today is because before I was hanging out with her, I wasn’t hanging out with her. I encountered Mary in such a way that is borne out of my not encountering her. In order to feel her presence, I needed to have felt her absence.

The same is true with Jesus, I think. While He may never be absent from us in the same way that Mary was absent from me or light from darkness, He often remains hidden. Jesus as human-divine Person reveals to us that God has a clear location in which one can meet him. St. Paul knew the Lord when He met him on the road to Damascus, “Who are you, Lord?” (Acts 9:5a). It is only after this that the Lord responds, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5b). Because Paul had known the hiddenness of God, he was able to recognize God when he actually encountered Him. In this, Paul interacts with the Lord in the midst of the encounter. Since Jesus is Person, He can be met. He can be talked to, and He can talk back: “I am Jesus.” For Paul, the Lord’s hiddenness was a necessary pre-condition in order to allow for Jesus to knock some sense into him, and it is in this encounter that Paul’s conversion occurs. Had Paul believed the Lord simply to be a vague substance that was hovering over and around him all the time, then Paul would not have recognized the Person of Jesus when His Light blinded him. This is crucial for us to remember in youth ministry.

But, Christian, don’t I want kids to know that God is always with them? Don’t I want them to know that He is always watching over them?

Wow. You really do ask good questions. Of course we want young people to know that God always loves and cares for them, indeed, that He is always with them. The question at hand becomes about precisely how we go about doing this. It is out of His own hiddenness that Jesus reveals Himself to St. Paul; for young people, this is going to be the same. As those who minister to the young, we often want to promise them the joy of the Kingdom and the presence of God without fully exploring with them the places that God seems to be hidden, but to offer them a God who is not hidden, is to offer them a God that cannot be met.

When youth ask, “Why does God let bad things happen?” there are very few answers that seem to be satisfactory, especially considering that this question usually amounts to something like: “Where was God when my dad died? Where was God when my sister got raped? Where was God on 9/11?” All of these are heavy questions, and they are ones that we who do youth ministry usually like to dance around. We may offer answers like, “God just wanted to take your dad home. God allowed this to happen to your sister to make her stronger. 9/11 shows us that God has enemies and one day, they will cease to be!” All these answers are totally unsatisfying to the teenager in pain. For them, God is hidden and obscured by the total absurdity of suffering in this world; and understandably so! But the problem that arises when we offer that “God has a plan in the midst of this crap. God is trying to make you stronger” is that we convey that we are unwilling to enter into the scariness of life that these young people face. Moreover, this reflects, to them, a God who is completely uninterested in the scariness of life that these young people face.

In the Cross, we see a mangled, disfigured, dehumanized Jesus. In this broken human dangling from the Tree, however, also exists the hiddenness of God. Yes, we see crucified humanity on the Cross, but we also see (or, rather, don’t see) the Crucified God. Jesus on the Cross is the fullness of God’s Self-revelation, but when we look at the Cross, all we see is a bloody peasant from the ghetto-town of old. God is present in the one place that He most clearly appears not to be.

When we skirt the darkness and run from the absurdity of pain, we also miss an opportunity to encounter the God who is hidden in the crucified humanity of Jesus. If we truly believe that God is “everywhere present and fillest all things,” then this means that we can bravely look at the clear brokenness of life and assert that God, though hidden, is present. We rightly state that God has a plan, but the plan is not to make them stronger; the plan is to reconcile these young people to Himself in their own weakness. If we, however, are unwilling to enter the weakness, the hiddenness of God, and stare it down with them, then we are showing young people that God is also unwilling to enter the weakness and hiddenness. And this is a tragedy, because in the Cross, we see that God is most fully present in His own hiddenness in the midst of human weakness, which is most clearly exemplified by the Crucified Christ.

If we are going to convey to these young people that God can be encountered, then this means we need to embrace the hiddenness with them. We need to explore their questions. We need to explore their doubts. We need to make room for their pain. We need to go looking for God in the places where He most apparently is not. If He’s everywhere, as we assert, then He also is there. If He is there, then why don’t we go looking for Him bravely? The questions of God’s purpose for allowing bad things to happen are important, but we misstep when we suggest that God’s purpose is one that will “be for the best.” Suffering is not for the best! It sucks! But the good news is that we have a God who is present in the midst of His own hiddenness in the human Person of Christ, and it is in His own suffering on the Cross that He comes close to our suffering. This is the purpose of our suffering: to meet Christ upon the Cross.

Youth workers need to release need to have answers to the darkness and the hiddenness of God. Instead, through relationship and asking these hard questions along with young people – “Yeah. You’re right. Life is crappy; where is God in all this?” – youth workers must be prepared to face these scary places of reality. Offering simple platitudes of “God will work it out” or “God is testing you to make you stronger” will not satisfy young minds or hearts. All this will do is shut them up until they leave the Church, having not been offered a God who faces reality with them because they have had youth workers who are unable to face reality with them.

Youth workers, in all that we do, reflect who God is for these young people. Jesus shows us that He is not afraid of human grotesqueness, disease, deformity, or death by going to the Cross, and He also shows us that where all that can be seen is destruction and despair, God is working behind the scenes to enact salvation and reconciliation. We just have to have the eyes to see and the ears to hear this. Youth workers, with Christly courage, must be prepared to enter the darkness with young people so that the Light of Christ can knock them around a bit, ultimately to the point of their conversion.

Mary was not offered a Jesus who could be encountered. She was offered a Jesus that she needed to keep happy by being on her best behavior. She was offered a faith that had come down to liturgical accuracy, rather than a faith that was to empower her to face reality bravely and go looking for God in the places that, by all evidence, He appears not to be. If Mary had been in relationship with an adult who was with, for, and committed to her personally in the midst of her confusion and despair, then she would have had a category for a God who is with, for, and committed to her personally in the midst of her confusion and despair.

It is essential that we see our own relationships with young people as completely reflective and instructive of the nature of this Jesus to whom we commend ourselves, one another, and our whole life. By being there for them, we reflect a God who is there for them. By looking bravely for God in the places of His hiddenness, we reflect a God who is not afraid to go with them into the places of darkness and despair, and when we do this, I am convinced that we, too, along with the young people, will be shocked to find the Lord knocking us off our own high horses of moralistic and liturgical piety. Lord, grant that this would happen.

Christ Himself bravely enters the darkness of death to take humanity by the hand and lead them to life. Would that we had the same courage.

Image sources: http://m.zimbio.com/Wallpaper/articles/aO-ah_mx7vm/quotes+about+jesus

http://www.dst-corp.com/james/PaintingsOfJesus/NoJS.htm

http://christianbackgrounds.info/7-word-of-cross/

http://catholicphoenix.com/2011/04/21/“the-passion-of-the-christ”-an-aid-to-meditation-on-the-sorrowful-mysteries-of-the-rosary-part-v/

http://josephpatterson.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/resurrection.jpg

Why Are You Doing Ministry?

I recently read Taking Theology To Youth Ministry by Andrew Root. I can’t recommend this book highly enough, and this entire post is greatly inspired and informed by his book. Again, I recommend it whole-heartedly. While all of his theology might not be the fulness of Orthodox Christianity, I think he does hit home on some very valuable points for those of us who are engaged in ministry to the young. One of the most powerful points in his book is that we who minister need to take a good hard look at our motivations behind ministry. Often, he states, youth ministry is well-intentioned, but that which truly motivates us compromises our intent. So the question for us that stands is simple: why are we doing ministry?

In this light, it becomes important for us to consider the differences between intentions and motivations. Our ministries are almost always undertaken with only the best intentions. We want to see kids become real followers of Jesus; we want to see kids become active and faithful Christian adult members of the Church; we want to spare them the misery of life without the Lord. All of these are good intentions, but often what motivates us is different and driven by other things.

We want them to be good Christians because we’re afraid of the choices that they might make apart from the Lord: drugs, alcohol, or (God forbid) premarital sex. We want them to be faithful members of the Church because we get scared about what it would be like if they rejected Orthodoxy and instead became non-denominational Protestants. Don’t get me wrong; these are things that we ought not want to happen, but as long as these are the things that motivate our ministries, we actually may not be doing ministry.

I’m not suggesting that our ministries should not be geared toward passing on certain moral and ecumenical convictions; this should happen. It is rather the manner in which we go about doing ministry and the theological quality of what we pass on to our young that ought to lead to understandings of morality and ecumenical convictions. Ministry, is after all, not about what we do in the lives of people, but it is about what the Lord does in the lives of people through us. We buy into a great error if we believe that our programs and curriculum (human action) are going to have lasting effect on the formation of the hearts of the Church’s young; we are deluded into the age-old sin of trusting our own convictions about what is good if we do this, and we trust human wisdom to pass on these truths.

Again, I’m not saying that abstaining from premarital sex is not good – it is – but if we are offering this basic Christian moral action in a vacuum (often citing different Scripture verses (proof-texting) or throwing statistics at kids (which they don’t care about because statistics, after all, don’t apply to them)), then we are failing to avail youth to the reality of God’s presence in their lives and His desire for them to trust Him with the various moral and ecumenical crises they face. Moreover, these crises that they face are often not simply issues of morality and ecumenicism; they are issues that confront their very being and the meaning of their being.

So all this begs the question, “What is ministry?” If we can articulate a satisfactory answer to this burning question, then perhaps we’ll see where ministry to the young might begin to fit in the greater scheme of the Church’s Mission in the world. Before this, however, I think it is important that we first understand the basis of the Church’s ministry, which is, namely, the Ministry of God to the world. If our ministries are disconnected from His Ministry, then what we are doing is not ministry at all; it is empty human action that exists for no other reason than to make us feel good about what we are doing for the kids, and while encouraging kids not to have sex may be a good thing, we need to ask whether this is the thing that God would have us do.

God’s Ministry in the world can be summed up in one word: Reconciliation. For St. Irenaeus, this was called recapitulation, but the gist is essentially the same. In the beginning, God created humanity, and humanity chose life apart from God and God’s gifts. To choose existence apart from God is to choose death. After all, what can life be without the Breath of Life flowing in and out of that which is? For humanity to choose life apart from God sent humanity into a spiral toward nothingness and non-being; St. Athanasius agrees with this, by the way, saying that “sin is non-being.” It is a willful return to the void from which God spoke the world into being.

To choose existence apart from God is to choose the nihilo (nothingness) from which God brought all that is. But God, in His mercy, becomes a human being and descends into those very places of nothingness that face our own humanity every day, thereby reconciling those places of darkness, nothingness, and death to Himself in His humanity. God is, after all, a God who brings something out of nothing, possibility out of impossibility, and now new life out of death. This is the Ministry of God: to work in places of nothingness and to make them into something by His Word, Who is Jesus Christ Himself.

If our ministries do not reflect a God who works alongside human nothingness to fill them with His own presence, then we are not doing ministry, for no ministry stands apart from God’s Ministry. To choose action apart from God’s action in the world is to choose the void, even if that action seems to be good. After all, the tree from which Adam and Eve ate in the beginning is the tree of the knowledge of both evil and good. The problem is that we choose “goodness” apart from God’s goodness. Talking about drugs, alcohol, and sex, making kids into people who know all about the ecumenical councils and sacramental theology of the Church, and teaching kids how important it is to feed the hungry and reach the poor are all good things, but if they take place apart from God’s action in the world (His Ministry), then they are not ministry; they are death.

This is why we should – no, why we must – check our motivations for being involved in ministry. If our motivation is to participate in the various ways that God works possibility against the impossibility of our life apart from him, then this can be said to be ministry. If we are looking for God’s action up against the various places of nothingness that manifest in the lives of young people, then this can be said to be youth ministry. If our work is geared toward teaching kids about the academic-esque theology of the Church so that they can defend their faith, then we are doing something wrong. If we are teaching them about how bad it is to cheat on tests or to do drugs, then we are missing the point of God’s action in Jesus Christ on the Cross.

Up against the threat of nothingness and death, the temporary solace and illusory promise of fidelity and life meaning that comes from premarital sex and other illicit deeds will continue to win if young people perceive they follow a God who wants them to be good boys and girls rather than a God who works new life out of their experiences of death. If their perception of God is not a God who faces the void of existence with these young people, then they will keep choosing deeds that stave off the anxiety of returning to the void from which God brought forth all which is. If we, however, see ministry as participating in God’s own action to bring forth something out of nothing, if we see God in the midst of the void by His death on the Cross, then we offer young people a life with a God who is with them and for them in the scariest depths of their existence.

It’s time for us to check our motivations. Are we doing youth ministry because we want kids to be “good?” Are we doing ministry because we want them to be Orthodox for the rest of their lives? Or are we doing ministry because we believe in and follow a God who went to the Cross to fill all of human longing, despair, and nothingness with His own presence and because we want young people also to know this God who works new life out of death? Is the God we present one that wants things from kids (good behavior, service, and worship) or one that wants things for them (eternal life, participation in His Ministry, and participation in His own Community of Love)?

So let’s get real. Why are we doing ministry?

Commencement Address To The Youth of St. George, San Diego

Hello, all!

Here is the transcript of a commencement address that I gave to the youth of St. George in San Diego, for what it’s worth. Hope you enjoy it!

In Christ,
Christian

Very Reverend Fathers, Reverend Deacon, Graduates, Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

I am very honored to have this opportunity to be with you today as we celebrate the accomplishments of this graduating class.

Thank you for inviting me to be here.

I know that none of us really knows each other, so allow me just briefly to introduce myself.

I am the Southern California Deanery youth director, and I was appointed to this position by His Eminence, Archbishop JOSEPH, in October of last year.

Since that time, I have had the privilege and the honor of meeting and interacting with teens, young adults, parents, pastors, and youth workers all throughout Southern California. When I meet people who are concerned with youth in our world, they often say things to me like, “We need to find a way to keep our young people in the Church.” While I appreciate this sentiment and for the most part agree, I think this view is somewhat limited.

As I was growing up, I remember my father saying to me nearly every day, “Today is your opportunity to see where the great passion of your heart intersects with the world’s great need .”

It was a big statement to be sure, but it is one that left a big impression on me as I grew up.

The Christian life is one that is marked by such a statement.

Graduates, today is your opportunity to see where the great passion of your heart intersects with the world’s great need.

As Orthodox Christians, we often become complacent in our faith, not because we don’t care or because we somehow think that it is boring, but because we think that simply being a member of the Church or attending liturgy is the extent of a Christian’s activities in life.

I speak to this from firsthand experience, knowing that it is easy to get into the rhythm of simply attending church services, feeling like I have fulfilled my religious requirement for the week.

But today, I want to encourage you to see that the life of an Orthodox Christian is one that does not end at the liturgy; the life of an Orthodox Christian begins at the liturgy, and it invades the world beyond the doors of the church.

When we Orthodox Christians think about the historical line of our Church, it is easy to become proud or overly confident in the fact that we can claim to have been in existence for nearly 2,000 years. Our uninterrupted line of apostolic succession. The rich tradition of our liturgical worship. The use of our icons…all these things are certainly cause for celebration and love for the Church, but I encourage us to think of Church in a new way. Rather than seeing it as something that is an heirloom to preserve; let’s see the Christian life as a world to explore.

In the middle of Christ’s ministry, he asks his apostle, “Who do you say that I am?” St. Peter responds rightly, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” From here, Jesus commends Peter’s belief and says, “You are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall never prevail against it.”

As we consider our rich tradition and the 2,000 years of our Church, it is easy to look at this verse and consider it evidence that Orthodoxy is the church. The Lord has built his Church, and it still stands. It is almost evidence that the Lord himself has defended the Church against the attacks of hell, but might this be an incomplete reading of the text?

Notice that the Lord says “the gates of hell” shall never prevail against it. Gates are not weapons, but rather, they are defensive measures. The Lord here is suggesting that the Church is on the offensive, invading hell, and hell’s gates will not be able to keep the Church out.

The life of a Christian is one that is marked by continually invading hell. This is the job of the Church. The gates of hell have already been broken down by the Lord who has descended to the depths of human death and despair. He has paved the way for the Church to follow him and fill hell with life.

Every day is an opportunity for you to invade the hell of broken relationships, diseased bodies, unjust political systems, corrupt businesses, abusive families, mislead cultures, and the hurting world and to fill it with the light of Christ.

The Church is an army, and today is the opportunity to find out where the great passion of your heart intersects with the world’s great need and God’s Mission in the world.

The Lord and the Church are on a mission, whether you realize it or not. Today you are being invited to join that mission. Today in the Gospel we heard St. Peter say that he followed the Lord and the Lord commended him and any one else that would follow him.

Today I encourage you to follow the Lord, understanding that his life lead right to breaking down the doors to hell, and now it is our job to populate hell and fill it with the Church.

We are Christ’s presence in the world. We are his hands and feet, and by us, he hopes to invade the broken, dirty, diseased, deformed and lost parts of the world and to reclaim them with his love. We are being invited to participate in reconciling the world to God.

Today is your opportunity to see where the great passion of your heart intersects with the world’s great need and God’s Mission in the world.

For some, this may mean becoming a doctor. You may be able to offer the love of God as you mend a broken leg. For others of you, this may mean going into the streets and caring for those who have been neglected, forgotten, and abused by the rest of the world. You can offer someone humanity just by sharing a meal with them. Or maybe you are particularly moved by the suffering caused by abusive parents, and maybe you can be the loving the presence in a child’s life that they never would have received otherwise. All of these things are opportunities for you to prove that the gates of hell will never prevail against the life of the Church. And it is your opportunity to see where the great passion of your heart intersects with the world’s great need and God’s Mission in the world. And it is also where the great passion of your heart intersects with the Lord’s desire to bring all things back to himself.

The thing is, though, that this means that God has a different metric for success than a good paycheck. He may have created you to be a fireman or a policewoman. The hells of this world need men and women who will care for nature and righteously uphold the law. Not everyone who sets out to be a doctor will become one. And that’s okay. The hells of this world are in the sanitation business as well, and the world will always need janitors, garbagemen, and plumbers. With “good jobs” becoming less and less readily available, we need to shift our thinking from being about consumeristic success and instead think about Church military force. Our job is to help the Lord reconcile all things to himself, and this is our primary task. More than you are Americans, more than you are the children of your parents, more than you are students…you are servants of the King, and the King wants his world back.

You are on the invasive. Now, go.

And as you go, remember that you are journeying forth from a community. You are surrounded here by adults who know you and love you. Take a moment to reflect on those adults in your life who have made a difference for you. Consider those who you believe really know you and care about you and commit today to keeping them in your life.

No one is alone on this mission to invade the hells of our world. We are the Church, and we must do this together.

Surrounding you are those who have begun to walk the path of invasion and they have some more experience than you. Get to know them. Let them know you. Share with them your desires, your fears, your longings, your passion. Share with them your heart.

Adults, welcome these young people into the church. Encourage them in their gifts. If you think one of these young people is particularly strong in some way or another, let them know. Take time to help them figure out what they care about. Take time to let them share their hearts with you. You won’t be disappointed. Help them see how they can join the Lord’s work in the world. Show them the ways that you have sought the Lord and seen yourself as invading hell for the sake of the Lord.

If the Church sticks together, and if we can know and love one another in the presence of Christ in the world, then we sincerely stand a chance of invading the hells of our world with the brilliance of God’s love.

But it takes work. And it takes time. And it takes knowing the landscape of whatever hell you hope to invade.

It means that you must remember that today, like every other day, is your opportunity to see where the great passion of your heart intersects with the world’s great need and God’s Mission in the world.

An Address to the Order of St. Ignatius

A couple months ago, I was privileged to address the Orange County chapter of St. Ignatius of Antioch at one of their dinners. The night was such a blessing for me, and I truly felt honored to be a guest speaker. Below is the transcript of the talk I gave. I ask, in advance, forgiveness for any grammatical, spelling, or other errors that it contains.

In Christ,
Christian

Your Eminence, Archbishop JOSEPH, Very Reverend and Reverend Fathers, Very Reverend and Reverend Deacons, Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

I am deeply honored and very grateful to have the opportunity to stand before you tonight.

Since September of last year, I have had the privilege to serve the Southern California Deanery as the youth director. One of the main questions that I get asked when I tell people that this has been my work and ministry is simple enough: “So…what exactly do you do?” This is a good and fair question. It is also a question that I have asked myself on several occasions. What is it that I do?
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