In a recently published Scholars Speak piece I ask what a meaningful Christmas gift might be. Do we really need more stuff? Or, could our gift giving express a deeper value of benevolence and care for others, while at the same time honoring those we love?
America is certainly experiencing some hard economic times this holiday season, but let's not forget about those who have so much less. If you make $50,000 a year, you're in the top 1% of the wealthiest people on the planet. At $34,000 you're in the top 5%, and at $25,000 (just above the poverty level for a family of four in the U.S.) you're in the top 10% of the globe's richest. Almost half of the world lives on less than $2.50 a day.
How would we spend money this Christmas if we took these stats seriously? As part of the 99%, many of us could do more.
Here is a teaser for my article:
August. That was the month I saw Christmas decorations appear in my favorite big-box superstore, along with aisles of children’s toys waiting to be snatched up in the coming shopping frenzy. I quickly snapped a picture of the surreal landscape and posted it to Facebook with the caption “Really?” and then headed back to my car through the 105-degree heat.
Retailers have perfected their Christmas marketing strategies. They begin their planning a year in advance, ordering merchandise, shipping stock to warehouses and testing product desirability. The trend to bring larger quantities of fewer items into store inventories earlier and earlier enables vendors to get a jump on competitors. These savvy merchants have turned shopping into a science as they fiercely contend for the half-trillion dollars that Americans will spend on gift giving this holiday season.
Click here for the full piece.
I have been perusing a plethora of articles being written lately about adolescent development, specifically about how the brain of a teen is formed. We know more about teenagers and the way they think (I know, you’re asking if they think at all) than we ever have. Thanks to vast improvements in technology that allow scientists to scan the brain, we can actually see what is happening inside the mind of an adolescent.
This is exciting because we can now make correlations between adolescent development and their spiritual formation. Why is this important? Because too many times we tend to respond to and interact with teens as if they were just little adults, small versions of ourselves.
One of the things that we have learned is that the teen brain is almost fully formed physically. But though the size of the brain is similar to adults, the hard wiring of the synapses actively continues into the mid-twenties. If you’ve ever wondered of your teenage child, “What was she thinking?” or “Where is his mind?” the recent literature reveals that you’ve been closer to the truth than you were probably aware. Teens’ brains are in expansive stages of development.
Here are some great resources with brief summaries of each article.
“Teenage brains." National Geographic. October 2011.
We used to understand adolescent behavior through the very common storm-and-stress framework, thinking that teens’ irrational actions were due largely to the stress that they faced. Scientists today are showing us that while this is partly true, the development of the brain has much more to do with unpredictable behavior. Seen from an adaptive view, we find that teens are highly proficient at adapting to new experiences and social situations, and in fact, require these kinds of opportunities. The downside to adaptability is that they aren’t adept at logical thinking, especially in social contexts.
One lesson for youth ministry: students must be provided with opportunities to take risk, give significant creative input and engage socially with one another.
“Why teens are wired for risk.” CNN Health. October 19, 2011.
Teens are hungry for and seek out social rewards, and they are willing to take huge risks to get them. Because of this, they aren’t always aware of the danger at hand when taking risks. They are prone toward experimentation in this stage of life, which might lead them to harmful practices of substance abuse, promiscuity, reckless behavior, etc. To change behavior, adults need to reinforce good behaviors and trusting relationships.
One lesson for youth ministry: students need risk, and the youth group is a great place to experience this through new, creative and healthy experiences such as social encounters, service projects and mission trips.
“IQ can change in teenage years.” BBC Science & Environment News. October 19, 2011
A general assumption has always been that the capacity for intelligence will stay the same throughout life—if you’re born smart you will stay smart (though that is no guarantee that you’ll do smart things). But recent brain research indicates that in adolescence intelligence can go either up or down. In other words, someone who can’t do math in junior high might do very well with the subject in college.
One lesson for youth ministry: don’t judge a book by its cover; those squirrelly freshmen have the potential to turn into significant and thoughtful leaders.
“Experiencing teen drama overload? Blame biology.” NPR Health News. August 16, 2010.
It’s not just raging hormones that cause irrational behavior. The developing teen brain actually favors this irrationality. In a sense, teens are wired for emotional experiences, not for thinking. This is why teens are so emotional; they’re just doing what teens are wired to do. Adults need to learn that adolescents don’t view the world the same as they do.
One lesson for youth ministry: when your students get angry (or feel overwhelmed by any other emotion), don’t respond with anger or shock; come alongside the teen, support him or her, and wait for a “cooling off” phase, then use the emotion to learn about life (and definitely do not manipulate teens with emotion).
In his book Like Dew Your Youth, Eugene Peterson says that adolescence is a gift from God. While most people, especially parents, think of this stage of life as a time merely to be endured, Peterson understands it as a beautiful opportunity for growth. And the growth doesn’t just happen in the teen; it happens in all of us as we interact with and learn from one another.
Rather than seeing the students in our youth groups and families as problems, let’s recognize what science is confirming: teens are wonderful human beings with a propensity toward resilient adaptation, a love of new experiences, and vessels of a marvelous range of emotions. Though incredibly complex, adolescents are a delight to work with and the church is a great place for them to work out the development of their new brains.
Are you working with adolescents who have experienced the divorce of their parents? If you have any contact with youth, the chances are very high. A majority of teens will spend some time in a single-parent or blended family due primarily to divorce. If you help in a youth ministry you can expect half of your students to have gone through this traumatic process.
In grad school I wrote a thesis on Pastoral Care of Adolescents from Divorced Homes. Here is an article from my denominational magazine, The Christian Leader, which summarizes some important findings about working with this very large subset of adolescents.
A teenager is at a particularly vulnerable stage of life to go through the divorce of parents. Perhaps you have witnessed a teenager going through the divorce process and have wondered, “What can I do?” First, recognize the various situational issues that adolescents face in the divorce process. Second, pursue those tasks that will help the teen.
Full article here.
Today I had the amazing privilege of participating in an historic event. As chair of the division of Biblical and Religious Studies at Fresno Pacific University I represented our department in the dedication of the Center for Anabaptist Studies. The purpose of this Center is to research, teach and envision how the original Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century might influence and inform our theology and churchly practice in the twenty-first century.
These are my people. This is my tradition. This radical wing of the Reformation was neither Protestant nor Catholic. Harold Bender reminds us in his book The Anabaptist Vision that it was a movement of priests and peasants who centered their understanding of God’s kingdom in three things: discipleship, community and the way of peace. For this they were hunted, persecuted and martyred.
Dr. Valerie Rempel gave an inaugural address in which she provided a concise definition of Anabaptism and offered a rationale for the founding of the Center. Here is an excerpt from her presentation.
In the 16th Century, some of the greatest theological minds of that era began to read the Bible in new ways. The text itself hadn’t changed but because of their experience in the Roman Catholic church, their own study of the scripture and, I have to believe, the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, they began to develop a new understanding of God’s grace and free offer of salvation. Among those who were committed to reforming the church were those who wanted more than reform – they wanted to restore the kinds of communities described in the New Testament. These were the men and women who became known as the Anabaptists. Many of them lost their lives because of their witness to a new way.
Anabaptists were radical Bible readers at the core. They understood the reign of God to be centered in the church rather than the state, and believed that the body of Christ was to give visible witness to its proper citizenship. They saw themselves as present-day disciples of Jesus and because of that, they gave special weight to Jesus’s teaching – to his invitation to live generous lives, to his call for love of enemies, to his encouragement to participate in God’s work of healing and justice and hope. They formed voluntary churches based on an adult confession of faith. They practiced mutual aid. They practiced church discipline.
As spiritual descendants of those early radicals, these ideas have informed our theological tradition and our church practices. But, nearly 500 years later, we live in a very different period of time. Separation between church and state has morphed from a theological idea about proper allegiances, to a political idea embedded in a constitution. Old enemies – church bodies that persecuted early Anabaptists, are now brothers and sisters in common endeavors – mission enterprises, community development projects, health and human service ministries, and educational programs. We are witnessing the demise of Christendom, a political and cultural reality that privileged Christianity but also invited, indeed welcomed, compromise. In its place is an increasingly secularized society and an increasingly secularized church.
I believe that this is a time that calls for radical Bible reading. The text hasn’t changed – but the times we live in have and they call us to re-engage with God’s Word and with our own theological tradition to see how it can offer us wisdom for living as Christians in our world and for engaging in mission that invites all people to become followers of Jesus and children of God.
I, too, believe that Anabaptism is a viable and relevant option for our postmodern, post-Christendom culture. In an age when people are increasingly skeptical of a superficial gospel that amounts to nothing more than “fire insurance” from the “flames of Hell,” the call to discipleship is compelling and authentic. As people face the crushing and dehumanizing consequences of individualism, the call to community is meaningful. As people recognize the failure of war and militarism to bring about positive change, the call to a way of peace is hopeful. This is the time to dream dreams and allow the Spirit to move us in ways that are often counter to the culture we inhabit. And a re-envisioned Anabaptism gives us the theology, history and tradition from which we can engage the new world around us.
Another quote from Dr. Rempel:
I want the Center to be a place that encourages our own tradition – the Mennonite Brethren church that gave birth to the University and the Seminary – to reclaim its theological heritage. The question of allegiance – to God or to the state – has not gone away. We, too, struggle with an increasingly secularized society and its impact on the church. It is difficult for us to resist the lure of a consumer society – to live lives of simplicity and generosity. Too often, we find ourselves fighting over how God accomplished the work of salvation through Jesus, rather than joining together to proclaim the message that Jesus does indeed save and that through him, people and communities can be transformed. We need active imaginations that can envision ways for our congregations to live out their calling to be the body of Christ and we need the courage to lead.
My people died at the hands of their persecutors for these beliefs. They would not claim allegiance to the state. They would not take up arms against the enemies of the state. They would not baptize their children, but rather chose adult confession of faith. They would not coerce anyone to join them. They were, however, a people of discipleship, community and peace, committed to the Sermon on the Mount. For this they died.
Particularly thrilling today, was when I got to hold a copy of a 263-year-old book. This book, The Martyrs Mirror, is a collection of stories chronicling the deaths of an untold number of Anabaptist martyrs. First published in 1660, the copy that I held was printed in 1748. Documented as the largest book to be printed in Colonial America, and older than the Declaration of Independence, the book before me held story after story of people who sacrificed everything to be a part of this radical way of life.
One of the most famous stories tells of the Anabaptist Dirk Willems. Dirk had the opportunity to flee his captors, but as he ran across a frozen lake he suddenly heard the cries of his pursuer. Dirk’s would-be-captor had fallen through the ice and was certain to be drowned. In an act of compassion, Dirk rescued his pursuer, was recaptured and later burned at the stake.
These are my people. I am very proud to be a founding partner in the Center for Anabaptist Studies. I believe that God has a great and vibrant future for us as we bear witness to his Son through the ongoing creative work of his Spirit, and as we carry forward the heritage of our past.
Here is the dedicatory prayer I offered for the center:
We come today, our great God and Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, through the guidance of the Spirit, to ask for wisdom and discernment. We ask that you would enlighten our minds, open our eyes and soften our hearts for the mission at hand. We ask that you would challenge us through the vast host of witnesses that have gone before us, the forbears of a great tradition of faith – a tradition committed to discipleship, witness, service, community and peace.
We ask, Father, that you will anoint and bless The Center for Anabaptist Studies. And as the various partners work together to further a theological, historical and educational mission, will you revive the hearts of your children and draw all people to yourself.
We ask a blessing upon Dr. Valerie Rempel, our center’s director. Give her vision, passion and purpose for the challenges that lie ahead. We are grateful for the benefactors that have made this center possible. We honor their faithfulness to the Anabaptist vision and thank you for them.
God our Father, an idea is born today. For some, it would seem to be an idealistic one, an antiquated aberration of history. Some would even call it heretical as they did 500 years ago. But today, God, we stand together to again commit ourselves to the way of Jesus, though that way may not make sense, though that way may not be popular and though that way may not walk easily in step with the current culture. We believe that we have a vital and prophetic message for the twenty-first century and we believe that there are those, especially the young who are so disenchanted with popular ideologies and paradigms, that will also find hope, meaning and purpose in a third way.
So, today, our great God, we dedicate The Center for Anabaptist Studies to you and ask that you grant us favor.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
Just yesterday Steve Jobs, the genius behind more than three decades of revolutionary innovation at Apple, Pixar and Disney, lost his battle with cancer at the age of 56. Upon hearing of Jobs’ death, Steven Spielberg commented that “Steve Jobs was the greatest inventor since Thomas Edison” because of his ability to bring world-changing technology into the lives of ordinary people.
Someone suggested to me that the Church needs a Steve Jobs-type leader and asked, “What could such a person do if committed to the mission of the church?” At first, this sounds like a great idea, but further reflection causes me to wonder if that would really work. As I think about the role of a pastor in the church, I need to remember why I love the leadership of Jobs. Here are some of the qualities that stand out most.
In sum, Steve Jobs was much more than a CEO. He was an artist. When he set out to develop a product, he approached it as a poet. His computers, music players and phones were not merely technical gadgets, they were paintings. Jobs was not interested in function alone. He developed form around visual colors and tactile sensations. He saw the world as an artist would and his leadership style reflected the heart of a master sculptor.
Was Steve Jobs a great leader? Most definitely. And there is much that church leadership can learn from this innovative, imaginative craftsman. Unfortunately, this is precisely the type of person that most churches drive from their midst because they are fearful of and threatened by such people. The artist is rarely welcome in institutional Christianity. These kinds of folks see the world differently and often annoy traditional church systems. Even as tough as Jobs was, many churches would just chew him up and spit him out. He'd be fired for sure.
I think Steve Jobs was a great leader, but I’m pretty sure he would make a terrible pastor.
PS On a related note, as we say "Goodbye" to Steve Jobs, we say "Happy 10th Anniversary" this month to the iPod, just one of Jobs' devices that changed the world. And here's another creative partnership that stretched way outside of the box:
It might surprise you whom self-identified "born again" voters will vote for in the next election. A recent Barna survey compared born again Republicans, Democrats and Independents. It's no shock that Republicans in this category indicated that President Obama held a distant third place when matched against Governor Perry (first) and Governor Romney (second) on issues of honesty, intelligence, philosophy of government and leadership ability.
The surprise, for some, will be that Democrats who declare themselves born again (another surprise for some: yes, there are born again Democrats) overwhelmingly support Obama in all four categories. Among Independents, Obama was the favorite when it comes to honesty, intelligence and philosophy, but they thought Perry had the best leadership ability.
In a final comparison, Barna found substantial differences between age groups. Born again Christians under 40 strongly favored Obama for his honesty, intelligence and philosophy. Among 40 to 64-year-old voters, Obama has a slight edge. Those born again Christians over 65 signaled Romney has the best philosophy while Perry and Romney tied for having the best leadership abilities.
There is clearly no consensus as to whom born again Christians will vote for.
A favorite lyric of mine from a Mumford and Sons song is "Lend me your eyes I can change what you see / But your soul you must keep, totally free." ("Awake My Soul")
Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could stop lampooning one another during this political season long enough to understand each other? Even better, what would it mean for those who declare themselves as born again to take a look at the issues from another's perspective with a new set of eyes. It appears partisanship is strong; no doubt there will be incivility and conflict among Christians. My fear is that our arguing and fighting will continue to keep the focus on politics and off of the work of the gospel. And, sadly, that certainly won't advance the church's witness and testimony as a foretaste of God's kingdom to the world around us.