Thursday, December 13, 2007

Who We Were and Who We Are

I have kind of been avoiding my blog recently. It seems like this time of year we get so wrapped up in shopping and office-partying and baking and decorating that there isn't much time to think about anything else.

This time of year I really long for the Advent of my time in Cameroon, when the only sign that Christmas was even approaching was the (daring!) Christmas music playing softly in the background at Nziko's store. I spent two years living in a place where more than half the population, being Muslim, were not interested in the coming of the Christ child. To me it seemed more like what the original Christmas must have been like--nobody was waiting for that little, helpless baby to arrive. Nobody understood what it was all about, or who he would ultimately become, or where he would end up. Nobody could have guessed about the horrible way his life would end, or the mysterious and miraculous way he would return. Nobody knew that he was here, ultimately, to offer us the greatest gift we never knew we needed.

I have become so hesitant to share stories of my experiences in Africa because I have learned from experience that people don't really want to hear what I have to say. They want 30-second easy answers to their so difficult and complicated questions. The truth is, there are no easy answers. The truth is, I can very distinctly divide my life into two very different eras: who I was before I went to Africa, and who Africa has made me into. I am not who I was, nor will I ever be again.

I wish that during this time of waiting for the Christ child, we could seek to understand the way this lowly birth changed our world forever: two distinct eras; who we were before Christ's arrival, and who Christ has made us into. We are not who we were, and we never will be again. I only hope that we do not hesitate to tell the world this story. They may not want to hear it, but they need to.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Tanzania

My husband Pierre and I are going to be leading a trip for youth and young adults from the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod (ELCA) to Tanzania in August 2008! Click on the map below to see where Tanzania is located. You can also learn more about Tanzania at the ELCA Global Mission website.



If you are in 11th or 12th grade or are in college (or aren't in college but are younger than age 22), and a member of a Lutheran Church in our 4-county area, then you are eligible for this opportunity! Go to the SE PA Synod Youth Ministry Website and download an application. We are limited to nine participants, so take your time on your application. You will need one letter of recommendation and must answer two short essay questions. All the information you need can be found on the website. Applications are due on February 15, 2008 (the deadline has been extended)! We'd love to have you along with us on this once-in-a-lifetime journey!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Warm Deacon Fuzzies

A lot of people have asked me if I feel different now that I am a diaconal minister. I don't really. Am I supposed to have warm deacon fuzzies or something? I am glad I have finally accomplished this thing, though--it took me 5 whole years! I had 2 years of seminary, 2 years of contextual education, diaconal ministry projects, spiritual direction, and at least a year doing a lot of spiritual wrestling trying to figure it all out. Lots of people complete this process in a lot less time than it took me!

Anyways, here are some pictures from my big day:


This is Trinity Lutheran Church, where I am serving. The sanctuary was decorated for All Saints' Day, which was the day I was consecrated.


That's Bishop Claire Burkat, me, and my husband Pierre. At the beginning of the consecration, the bishop called up members of my family, staff, and council to stand with me.


During the service (that's Pastor Becky Eisenhart on the right).


My sister Tina is presenting me with my basin, pitcher, and diaconal stole.


All done! Do I look like I have warm deacon fuzzies?

I am really thankful to have finished this process, to be serving in such a wonderful synod and congregation, and to have such great friends, family, and colleagues surrounding me!

**If you want to know more about diaconal ministry, consecrations, or any of that sort of stuff, read my post from September 25, 2007**

Friday, November 2, 2007

Pandora

This is just silliness, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Sometimes it is tough to be serious all the time.

This is my kitty:



Ooops. Let's try that again. This is my kitty:



Her name is Pandora. She is crazy. My parents fondly refer to her as the "Evil Demon Kitty." She usually isn't too evil, just as long as you don't forget to feed her. One time, I was coming home late, so it was Pierre's job to feed her. However, when he got home from work, he put on his shorts and went to the gym instead. Pierre forgot to feed the cat! Never do that! This was the result:



Our VCR really paid the price for Pierre's forgetfulness. We no longer have a VCR.

Pandora is actually a really good cat. Really. I love her. Having a pet is good for the soul. They never judge you, and they love you no matter what. Pandora always cares about me, no matter how rotten I've been or feel. All she wants is to sit on my lap and be petted (oh, and be fed on time).

Talk about grace! I guess this post had a theological bent after all....

Saturday, October 20, 2007

At the Font...

This week one of the pillars of our church community passed away. She was 82 years old, and beloved, not only by her family, but also by so many others whose life she touched. She died in a hard way, sick and in pain at the end. The good news of the resurrection speaks especially loudly now--the pain of this earth has passed away, and all things are new. She will rise up again in Christ Jesus, who loves her and calls her and all of us by name.

I came to church this morning, the morning of the funeral, to help teach a part of our pre-marital seminar. People who will be getting married at Trinity in the next few months come to this seminar as a part of their pre-marital work. Most of our group this morning are young, fresh-faced twenty-somethings, expectant about the new life stage they are entering, giddy and excited about love and their futures.

The stark contrast between these two very real moments has grabbed my attention. One family at the graveside, mourning an ending here on earth, but also celebrating, in some way, the beautiful gift of eternal life. And several soon-to-be young married people celebrating what is for them a new beginning in life. The death and the life, the freshness and the sorrow--they bookend each other.

This weekend we are baptizing TWELVE babies at worship (you read that right--12!). All of these things--the death, the weddings, the endings and new beginnings, all converge here... at the font. Here God is working. God is claiming us as God's own. We don't have to do anything--we don't even have to decide! God is in control and grace is poured out abundantly. It washes over us and cleans us. We are a new creation. God has chosen us and loves us with utter abandon.

What a wonderful Promise!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Thoughts on Grace--A Mission Theology Primer

Part 1

I have been thinking a lot about grace recently.

Grace has a lot to do with the issues I had with the mission theology of Pura Vida Missions when I travelled to Costa Rica. I have kind of been thinking that I need to explain myself a little bit. I complained a lot about poor mission theology in some of my most recent posts, and then I never said why I think it was poor theology, or what good theology looks like. The other week my friend Chris asked me, "Becca, why was it so bad? What exactly was it?" So, I am going to tell you what I think. Now, I know who some of my readers are, and I know that not all of you will be comfortable with my take on things. Please understand that this is an expression of who I am deep in my theological being more than it is a condemnation of what you may believe. I have to be true to myself--in the words of Martin Luther, "Here I stand. I can not do otherwise. God help me, Amen!"

I think I need to start this blog with a story from my past. I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, in the middle of the Bible Belt. Alabama tends to be very religiously conservative. They are also almost always a "red state" during presidential elections. Most of the people who I went to high school with were from the Southern Baptist tradition. Those who weren't were generally non-denominational, evangelical, or Pentecostal Christians (this is based on my observation and personal experience, not on data I researched). As a more liberal Lutheran person, I was in the minority religiously, and I therefore had to think hard about what I believed at a very early stage in my life. I often saw the incongruities between my faith and the way I practiced it and the religious habits and beliefs of the people around me.

One of the things that made me very uncomfortable as a Lutheran growing up in Alabama (I always used to joke that there were only 3 Lutherans in all of Alabama, and they were all in my family) were the questions. I remember one of my friends asking me once, "Are you Christian?" I told her yes--I am a Lutheran. "But, are you CHRISTIAN?" she asked. Another time someone asked me if I had been "saved," i.e., if I had decided to give Jesus my heart and asked him to be my personal Lord and Savior. Lutherans just don't talk like that! So, I gave what I still believe to be a very correct answer--I said that I had been baptized as a baby and that Jesus died and rose for me. I said that God loves me and all of His children, and His grace has set me free from the bondage of sin and death. I am proud that as a young person I was able to articulate my beliefs and stand up for my faith. I owe that in no small part to my parents, Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, and pastor.

My experiences as a youth growing up in Alabama led me to develop a strong mission theology while I was still in high school. The questions people asked about my faith made me uncomfortable mainly because I felt like they were trying to evangelize me. ME!? A good Christian girl? I knew that some people felt that I needed to convert from my sinful Lutheran ways and join the Southern religious status-quo. I found that offensive. I still struggle with prejudices against conservative and evangelical Christians because I know how horrible their evangelism tactics made me feel at the time. The basic sense of their argument (in my eyes) was that God couldn't save me unless I conformed to their belief system.

When I was a junior in high school I had an amazing, transforming, spiritual experience at the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) National Youth Gathering. If I had to pinpoint a moment in my life when God finally got to me and transformed me, that would be it. Following that experience, I really began feeling the call to ministry. More specifically, I began feeling the call to MISSION.

My view of mission at that time was what I had been shown by the Christians around me--something that made me feel icky, as if God couldn't grant me salvation unless I was like them, "born again," "saved," or whatever. The idea that I could be called to mission made me feel, well, icky. I didn't want to make others feel as disrespected and unloved as others' Christian evangelism tactics had made ME feel. No one had ever bothered to ask me what I believed. No one had bothered to find out WHO I was or WHAT I was all about. They didn't care much about who I was at all. They just wanted me on their side. They wanted me on the "right" side (both figuratively and politically).

I recently met a man from Africa who married a Pennsylvania Dutch girl from Lancaster County. My husband Pierre and I met them because of the reason we often meet people like them--we look like them and have a demographic similar to theirs. White American woman marries black African man and vice versa. We had dinner together. I will never forget the first two things that man wanted to know about me when we met for the very first time. He knew I worked in the church. And yet, what did he want to know? 1. Was I "born again"? and 2. What did I think about "gay people"? Seriously? That's it?

Bad mission theology is bad specifically because it does not seek to discover others' stories. It does not respect who they are or seek to know more about them. Bad mission theology only has ONE goal: to "save" poor, lost souls. Bad mission theology's general definition of poor, lost souls is anybody who does not believe and practice the same thing you do. Bad mission theology does not take into account that it is GOD who does the saving, and not over-zealous Christians.

The other thing that really frustrates me about bad mission theology is that it assumes that God is somehow limited in God's power to save humanity. It puts God in a box. It says, "Hey, look. If you are Lutheran, gay, Muslim, liberal, an adulterer, thief, or a hippie (or something else we don't like), God just can't save you. Sorry. But, there is hope for you--become like us, and God will love you like God loves us." Bad mission theology claims that the only truth that exists is the truth these people are perpetuating.

Now, I'm sorry, but exactly what kind of God do these people believe in, anyways? Didn't Jesus come to save HUMANITY? Didn't Jesus eat with prostitutes and tax collectors? Aren't we all as sinful as that Lutheran liberal gay hippie who is cheating on his wife sitting next to us on the bus? Don't say you're not! I know I am, and you are, too. The good news is, God loves us ALL anyways!

That's what grace is all about. God CAN and DOES meet us where we are, love us as we are, and transform us into the people God calls us to be. GOOD mission theology understands that, respects that, and yet also challenges us to become more closely aligned with who God wants us to be.

In Part 2 I promise I will stop ranting and get to the heart of who we are as Christians--despite my early aversion to the call, I now fully believe that ALL Christians are called to mission. I want to talk more about good mission theology and the work that all Christians are called to do.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Diaconal Ministry

What the HECK is it?

As I continue preparations for my consecration on November 4, I am getting a lot of questions about Diaconal Ministry. People receive my consecration announcements, and they inevitably have 2 questions:
  1. What's a Diaconal Minister?
  2. What's a Consecration?

So, I am off to "God's Country" for the next two weeks (My grandfather was from Minnesota, and he always swore it was "God's Country" - that and "The Land of the Sky Blue Waters"), and I thought it might be nice to answer those questions before I leave.

NOTE: This is not the "controversial" post I have been working on; it's just a little something to tide you over until I get a chance to write again.

First of all: If you are reading this post, then you are welcome to attend my consecration. So, before I tell you what a consecration is, let me officially invite you to one! Here is the invitation:


Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
--Jeremiah 1:4-5

You are cordially invited to the Rite of Consecration of

Rebecca Hanson Kolowé

to the Ministry of Word and Service as a Diaconal Minister in the
Evangelical Lutheran Church of America

November 4, 2007 at 4:00 P.M.

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church
1000 West Main Street, Lansdale, Pennsylvania 19446
(Corner of Routes 63 and 363)

Reception immediately following
Rostered leaders are invited to vest and process. The color of the day is white.


Please come! I hope to see you there!

***

Now, to answer those two questions! Here is an excerpt of an article that was originally published in Trinity's Lansdale Lutheran. It should answer all of your questions about Diaconal Ministry, consecrations, and perhaps some other things! I wrote it, and have made some changes here to better suit my blog.

DIACONAL MINISTRY

Rebecca Kolowé, Trinity's Pastoral Assistant in charge of adult and young adult education, is about to become a consecrated Diaconal Minister.

What is Diaconal Ministry?

Diaconal Ministry is a ministry of Word and Service. One way to explain it is to compare the ministry of a Pastor with the ministry of a Diaconal Minister: Pastors are called to a ministry of Word and Sacrament. This means that Pastors preach the Word and administer the sacraments (Holy Communion and Baptism). Diaconal Ministers are called to a ministry of Word and Service. This means that Diaconal Ministers preach the Word and focus on serving others.

What is a Diaconal Minister?

A Diaconal Minister is someone who is consecrated (or “set apart”) by the church to perform ministries of Word and Service.

What is a consecration?

A consecration is a rite of the church in which Diaconal Ministers are set apart for their particular ministry. It is very similar to the way a pastor is ordained.

What do you mean by a ministry of service?

The church says that Diaconal Ministers are called into a ministry of service at the place where the church meets the world. This means that Diaconal Ministers are called to serve the poor, afflicted, unlovely, and anyone who lives at the fringes between church and world.

If your ministry is a ministry of service outside of the church, then what are you doing working in a congregation?

The official website of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) Diaconal Ministry community (Please visit the ELCA Diaconal Ministry Community online at www.elca.org/diaconalministry) states, “Diaconal Ministers work to seek wholeness in the world and to help the people of God to live out the Gospel… [Diaconal Ministers work towards] equipping others for healing and justice in the world.” One aspect of service to others equipping the people of God, the people in the church, to be in service to others.

What kinds of jobs do Diaconal Ministers do?

Diaconal Ministers serve in a lot of different areas. Some of them, like me, work in congregations, encouraging and equipping others to serve. Other Diaconal Ministers may work for social service organizations, as chaplains, in campus or youth ministry, as counselors or spiritual directors, or in other areas.

How do you get to be a Diaconal Minister?

Diaconal Ministers must attend an ELCA seminary and complete the required degrees and requirements. Candidates for Diaconal Ministry also undergo a candidacy and call process before they are consecrated to service.

What is the difference between a deacon and a Diaconal Minister?

Diakonia is a Greek word taken out of the New Testament that means “service.” A deacon, therefore is a servant. Diaconal Ministers and deacons are both servants and are both the same thing. “Diaconal Minister” is the term that the ELCA has decided to use to designate its deacons.

As a Christian, I help serve others, too. What's the difference between me and a Diaconal Minister?

In many ways, we are ALL called to be deacons, and all of the various ways we minister to each other are important. All Christians should be in service to others. Jesus called us all to be deacons when he said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). The difference between an ELCA Diaconal Minister and other lay people is that a Diaconal Minister has attended seminary, has gone through the church-wide call process, and has been consecrated (“set aside”) by God and the church to a specific ministry. It is similar to the way a Pastor is educated, called, and ordained to a specific ministry.

Aren’t you a deaconess?

I am not a deaconess. In the ELCA, deaconesses are women who are a part of a deaconess community. Although our call to service is very similar, only women who are a part of the deaconess community are to be called deaconesses. I am a Diaconal Minister, and you may call me a deacon.

Why have I never heard about Diaconal Ministers before?

Deacons have existed in the wider church for hundreds of years. However, the term “Diaconal Minister” and its recognition as a consecrated ministry of the ELCA only became official in 1993.

Why haven’t you told us earlier about you being a Diaconal Minister?

I am actually not a Diaconal Minister yet. I graduated from seminary in 2004, but was still working to complete the candidacy and call process when I began working at Trinity. I finished those final requirements in April. I will officially become a Diaconal Minister on November 4, 2007, when Bishop Burkat consecrates me as a Diaconal Minister. That service will be here at Trinity, and I would love for you to come and be a part of that special day!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Slacker

Ok, I know I have been a bit remiss in my blogging duties recently. The truth is, with all the fall programming starting up at church, I have been swamped! Plus, Pierre and I are planning a 2-week vacation at the beginning of October, so I have to get all my work done before then!

In reality, I do have a blog I have been working on, but I am a little nervous about posting it. I think some people I know might not like it, and I am not sure if I am ready to deal with that. I know that some of you who have known me for a long time might think this is a little out of character for me. But, this particular blog is about an issue that is very close to my heart, and that makes it harder to put it all out there on the line for the whole world to see and critique.

How's that for a teaser?

Anyways, I promise to get something good posted as soon as I can! In the meantime, enjoy the change of seasons, the cooler weather, and all the wonderful things God has given you!

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Pura Vida: "Pure Life" in Costa Rica

Part 4

(Scroll down to read parts 1-3)



This is my last blog about my trip to Costa Rica with the synod at the beginning of August. I have been thinking a lot about Costa Rica the last few days. When I came home I went right back to work and really didn't get much time to process the trip. Now that it is the holiday weekend and I have had some time to myself away from the busy-ness of work, some things are clearer to me than they were immediately following my return.

First of all, I should make it clear that I had a really good time. I definitely had issues with the mission theology and teaching methods of Pura Vida Missions, but that doesn't take away from the fact that we were there to love and serve Costa Rican children, and we did that successfully and with great passion. In many ways the theology of Pura Vida Missions doesn't even matter, because those children (and our youth) had a great time and learned a lot about God's love for them through our service. The Holy Spirit was there, and she was working! A wise missionary once said to me, "The Holy Spirit doesn't work because of us, the Holy Spirit works in spite of us." Even though I heartily disagree with the theology of evangelism that Pura Vida practices, that doesn't mean that the Holy Spirit was absent. God can do great things, even in the midst of us sometimes doing not-so-great things.

Secondly, I feel really blessed to have been able to be a part of the lives of such wonderful, interesting youth. The young people who went on this journey with me are all intelligent, interesting people with futures full of hope. Some of them really touched my life, and that makes me feel very blessed. It was neat to see these young people blossom as they discovered a culture different from their own. Some of them really came out of their shells--they were discovering new things about themselves, too! Others revealed that there are things in their lives that they are really struggling with right now. Throwing people who don't know each other together like that in a different cultural environment can lead to wonderful realizations about ourselves and each other.

In particular, today I am thinking a lot about Jenn, Holly, and Candice. Each of them had their own very personal experiences, struggles, and revelations on this trip, and each of them taught me something about myself. There are others, too, who I have not named. I hope that they all continue to grow into the fabulous, enlightened young adults they are becoming.

Probably the last thing that I need to say is something that I learned about myself toward the end of our time together in Costa Rica. I have always said during my travels around the world that I will always try anything once (except for fried termites--a girl has to draw the line somewhere!). Well, towards the end of our time in Costa Rica, that mantra was severely tested. On our last full day in Costa Rica we went out into the jungle to participate in a canopy safari (You can visit Canopy Safari's website here). For those of you who don't know what a canopy safari is, let me explain it to you. You are attached to a harness, and you literally hang in this harness from a carabiner that is attached to a cable suspended between trees, high up in the air (otherwise known as a zip-line). But, you are not just attached to the cable--you actually move through the air between the trees by "zipping" along this zip-line. It is cool in the fact that you get to see the canopy from within the canopy. It is NOT cool in the fact that you are flying through mid-air 150 feet up (or some such crazy height) with nothing holding you up except this cable, harness, and carabiner. Like this:

And this:

I have to tell you, I was scared to death to do this! We were all told that we didn't have to do it, but that the entire group would be participating and that we would regret it and disappoint everyone else if we didn't do it. As a leader on this trip, I really felt like I had to. I was one of the people setting an example for the rest of the group. But, I really didn't want to, and I was scared! It even made me cry. However, one of the young people in my group, Holly, really encouraged me and I was able to overcome my fear and participate in this experience (but not without some swearing on my part). After having processed the day, I would probably even say that I had fun (something I was not willing to say immediately after the tour was over and I took off my harness and kissed the earth). I might even be willing to do it again someday. That is definitely growth for me.

My overall experience that day was awesome--I learned that I could do something I really thought I couldn't. I swear I thought I might die, but I came out OK in the end. It wasn't that bad and was actually kind of fun. And Holly really ministered to me and gave me the courage to do it. I wonder if she knows how important and powerful that was?

I also owe a lot to Big Al:



He seemed like a rough guy (he was telling jokes about some guy's "woody" on the way to the safari site) but really helped me be brave and didn't mess around because he knew I was scared. All in all, the staff at Canopy Safari was awesome. They took good care of us, and made sure we had a safe, positive, and fun experience.

The Canopy Safari was a good cap to an awesome week. I am proud of our youth for being such awesome young people--they did great work with the Costa Rican children, and ministered to me and to each other, too. I can only hope that I made a similar impression on them. During our time in Costa Rica, we all discovered more fully what it is like to live in God's Promise, as Children of God.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Pura Vida: "Pure Life" in Costa Rica

Part 3

(Scroll down to read parts 1 & 2)



Morning
Thursday, August 9, 2007

There's this dog that lives next door to the mission that looks like the Budweiser dog. Brown and white with that flat face and pointy ears. He has his own dog house in the back corner of the yard and barks and wags his tail (mixed signals) when someone comes by.

Costa Rica is beautiful and tropical and lovely. The children are wide-eyed and eager to play, learn, and love. Our youth shared last night during debriefing how much the children have touched their hearts. The work is hard but fun and the mission of God and of God's church is so clearly happening here. I praise God that God is showing these youth what it means to be a Christian in mission in this world.

The other side of that for me (and for some of the youth and other adults who are alert) is the negative experience we have had with the staff. For me, a lot of it comes down to mission theology. Mission theology and Christian education are at the core of my personal identity, and this week I have felt trampled upon. There is a caution of care that seems to be lacking here. Why are these people really here? Some of our youth and adult leaders have said they think it could be for selfish reasons. Plus the fact that this is an American-run mission and that the Costa Ricans working here are the ones doing the grunt-work ("hired hands," almost) turns me off. The motivation and the model that I see being presented is very "us/them." An "Oh, let's pity these poor Costa Ricans" kind of mentality.

I am afraid of what this way of doing things is showing our youth. I hope they know better, or will at least process this week and eventually come to know better. I know that I and our other trip leaders have tried to be intentional in letting them know that there is another way to do mission--a way that is non-threatening, love-filled, and good. I really pray that God works in their lives to show them the true meaning of Christian living, service, and mission. I really pray that this week will positively affect their outlook and beliefs. I know some of them are struggling with some of these things already. I know that God is with all of them, and I pray that God works on their hearts for good.




Morning
Friday, August 10, 2007

Last night I stood in the rain at a public telephone outside a house store up the street and called my husband. I have been trying to reach him all week! It was good to hear his voice, but we didn't have much time to talk. It wasn't the place for serious conversation. It was mostly formalities, but it was still good to talk to him.

Today is the last day at the mission. At noon we will get on the bus and drive three hours to the Pacific Ocean. I am thankful to be able to leave this place and spend a few days relaxing and unwinding. It will be nice to sleep in a hotel, have nicer facilities, relax on the beach, go shopping, etc. We are also going on a canopy tour in the morning, which I am a little freaked out about but I hope will be really cool.

Yesterday I felt like the staff finally got us. This has been a rough week with them, but yesterday things finally seemed OK. Maybe they are as excited as we are to be coming to the end of their journey. We are their last group, and most of them will be returning to the U.S. this weekend.

I think last night was really hard for the youth. There was a lot of sharing and crying. It will be hard, and yet good, to go home. A lot of these young people are really struggling with a lot of things--not just about this experience, but about life. I hope they can leave this place with a different, helpful perspective.



Early Evening
Saturday, August 11, 2007

We travelled four hours by bus yesterday across Costa Rica to Manuel Antonio, a small beach resort town on the Pacific Ocean. It was interesting watching the countryside change from densely-populated Costa Rican mountain towns to miles of land filled with cows and grass where few people seemed to live, to mountainous coastal villages filled with resorts, condominiums, and Americans. In some ways, we could almost be in America in Manuel Antonio. Costa Ricans here are more like the hired help than the native population. In this part of Costa Rica, the U.S. Dollar and the white man rule.

It is still tropical and beautiful here. There is a sign on the bathroom wall warning us of a water shortage and reminding us that Costa Rica, in all its beauty, is still a Third World country. Is it? Things here are a lot better in a lot of ways than in Africa. I have been impressed by the many conveniences here--I have yet to have to pee in a hole in the ground! When I look around, I don't see Third World. I see people with many of the modern conveniences we have in America--cars, running water, electricity, good infrastructure. Costa Rica is somewhere between Africa and the U.S. in that regard. Maybe Second World?

Tourism is the biggest industry in Costa Rica, and in this part of the country it is definitely obvious. It is a shame that tourists (mostly Americans, I gather) are creating a new kind of "tourist colonialism" here. The dollar and American wants and needs seem to be taking over. At what cost? At whose expense? What is being lost? Is it really worth it? Does anybody other than me ever think about these things? What makes me the saddest is that most of the Americans (and other tourists) that come here don't seem to think about these things. They just want to spend their money and enjoy themselves, and they want the Costa Ricans to help them do it.

On the other hand, I am sure that it is tourist dollars that are making Costa Rica the well-developed nation that it is becoming. Is the loss worth the gain? Is that a fair trade-off?

Today we went on a canopy tour, which was really stressful for me! We basically "swung through the air with the greatest of ease" on zip-lines suspended between the trees high up in the canopy. Not exactly my cup of tea!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Pura Vida: "Pure Life" in Costa Rica

Part 2

(Scroll down to read Part 1)

I should probably be working on this weekend's sermon instead of writing a blog (Yes, I am preaching this weekend. Those of you in the Lansdale area who are interested should join me at church this weekend. Click here for our worship times). But, here I am, thinking again about Costa Rica and what I can possibly say to make this experience as real for you as it was for me.

Before you continue reading, I think this blog may need a DISCLAIMER: I really struggled with whether or not I should publish some of the doubts and frustrations I had during my time in Costa Rica. I was torn between trying to be positive for the sake of the youth and my other travelling companions, and being honest about my experience. Let me be clear: my experience with the people of Costa Rica was outstanding. I am so glad that I got to be a part of their lives--they have touched mine forever. My experience with the staff of Pura Vida Missions upset me greatly, however. I struggle with trying to adequately explain those frustrations and disappointments without upsetting anyone who might have had a different experience. Some of my journal entries have been edited in an attempt to be honest without being offensive.

I figure this is my blog, and I want people to know that I am real. I am real Christian person with hopes and dreams and frustrations and challenges just like everybody else.

Here are some excerpts from my journal:




Afternoon
Sunday, August 5, 2007


It was interesting driving through the Costa Rican countryside and watching the reactions of our youth and young adults. Many of them have never been outside the U.S., or if they have, it was to Canada or Europe or some other place more... what? Modern? Easy? Comfortable? I looked over the shoulder of one of our girls as she was writing in her journal... "This place is so beautiful...."


Some things about Costa Rica seem so familiar to me, even though I've never been here before. Banana trees. Afternoon rainy-season thunderstorms. Cold showers.

I also recognize a few big differences. I never wanted to come here. I mean, I wanted to come here--it's not like they duct-taped me to my airplane seat and made me come. But even as I travelled to Africa for the first time, I knew somehow that it was where I belonged. I was waiting to be proven wrong. I wondered as we rode the bus to the Dulles Airport to fly to Amsterdam and then to Tanzania how I could possibly know. But, I did. And, I was right. I was never proven wrong.

Yesterday evening, however, as we drove to New York City and JFK Airport, I was waiting for something else. That feeling--that mysterious, magical sure-ness was missing. Instead, I was waiting to be shown that this place could be loved, too.

Now that I am here, I am sure that it can be loved. But it will never have the hold on me that Africa does. Costa Rica is the closest I have come to an environment and a culture anywhere similar to Africa's in four LONG years, and I know already this experience will not be the same. Africa has this enchanted hold on me like nothing else, nowhere else, ever can.

It is starting to rain. I am looking forward to meeting the children tomorrow.



Morning
Monday, August 6, 2007

It's a beautiful tropical morning. I had fresh local pineapple and bananas for breakfast. The sun is starting to peek through the remnants of last night's rain storms.

I had an interesting conversation with ____ last night about our hopes and fears for the youth on this trip. My personal beliefs about the mission of the church and what it means to be a "missionary" have already been challenged in the 24 hours we have been here. I think the staff at Pura Vida expects us to live out a different mission theology than the one I believe to be right and good. What I can say is that I am not here to "save the souls" of the children we will meet. God will take care of that. I am here to show the love of Christ to them through service to and relationship with them. We are not here to proselytise. We are not here to give "testimonies." We are here to serve, and through our service show the love of Christ to these children.

Pressure has also already been put on our youth to have some sort of "salvific" experience while they are here--that God will "transform their lives." That may happen for many of them. But, it also may not. Even those with the most open hearts may not feel God move or hear God speak or even witness God working. Sometimes our ways are not God's ways. We can't force a transformation in the children we are here to serve, and we can't force it on ourselves. We can't assume we know when or where it will happen.

My earnest prayer for all of us this week--the children we are serving, and our own youth, young adults, and adults--is that God does what God needs and wants to do in each of our lives, whatever that may be. God is here--for some reason I always see that more clearly when I am somewhere else. God will work. In God's way, in God's time.



Morning
Tuesday, August 7, 2007

It is a beautiful Costa Rican morning. The sky is brilliantly blue, the sun is shining, and there are a few white, puffy, cottony clouds drifting by.

Yesterday after our service to the children we went into San Ramon to do some shopping, etc. I am surprised at the size of the town, the number of cars on the roads, the quality of the roads, and other things. There are public trash cans and people work hard to keep their town clean. There are functioning public telephones. There is electricity and clean water. There is free public education. This seems, in many ways, to be a nice place to live and to be from.

The children we are working with are awesome. They are eager to play and to love you and to be loved. They show God's love and light to us--even though that's what we are here to show them! They are full of joy and love and light. I know that these children are going to have a lasting effect on our youth.

The staff at Pura Vida has talked a lot since our arrival about "personal testimonies." This speaks again to the difficulties I am having in dealing with the mission theology of Pura Vida Missions. I want our youth to understand that the love and service that they are showing these Costa Rican children witnesses to the love of Christ for them more than any "personal testimony" ever could. Their service is a testimony.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Pura Vida: "Pure Life" in Costa Rica

Part 1



I just spent 8 wonderful days in Costa Rica learning what it means to live "Pura Vida:" pure life. Costa Ricans basically live by this saying, and as you travel the countryside in Costa Rica you see the slogan everywhere.

I was in Costa Rica with 27 youth, young adults, and adults from the Southeastern Pennsylvania (SEPA) Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). We travelled to Costa Rica to serve in Christ's name and to be witnesses to others about the great love that Jesus has for people all over the world. In the process, we learned a lot about each other, the people of Costa Rica, and the amazing ways that God works in our lives. While we were in Costa Rica we served with an organization called Pura Vida Missions. We taught Vacation Bible School to children through games, drama, crafts, and Bible stories.

You should understand that the 27 people from SEPA Synod who travelled together to Costa Rica last week didn't really know each other that well prior to getting on that plane at JFK. We had done some group-building and prep work prior to the trip, but as a synod-wide group, we represented 16 different Lutheran congregations from the Philadelphia area. So, while some people had friends on the trip, others didn't know anybody. This experience was not just a chance to teach Vacation Bible School to Costa Rican children, it was also a chance for an unlikely group of 27 Americans to be thrown together to work, live, and serve others. Kind of sounds like an MTV reality show, doesn't it?

As I am writing this blog, I am trying to figure out exactly what I can say to summarize the experiences we all shared in Costa Rica. A lot of the young people that I travelled with had never been outside of the U.S. before, or if they had, it had been to somewhere where the standard of living is similar to that of the U.S. I think the things that surprised the youth most were things such as cold showers (!), or lack of water, or children coming to VBS in bare feet. It was interesting and inspiring to see these young people grapple with the challenges of understanding life in a different part of the world. I am sure that now, a week after our return, they are still struggling with the ways in which this trip has changed the way they look at the world.

I remember the first time I went to Africa. I spent two weeks in Tanzania with a group from College Lutheran Church in Salem, Virginia. I came home and my whole vision of life and love and what it means to be human had changed... and it was as though I was the only one on the planet who knew it or who even cared. I would see people walk up the sidewalk in my college town talking on their cell phones, or watch people drive by in their cars, radios blaring, and all of a sudden it all seemed so inconsequential. It is pretty hard to explain to others unless they have experienced it, too. It is a hard lesson to learn when you begin to understand from experience that most people in the world do not have the luxuries that you do. That was both one of the hardest and most freeing summers of my entire life.

Now, I know from experience that Costa Rica is NO Tanzania--but I have a point of reference other than the U.S. from which to draw comparisons. For the youth and young adults (and even some of the adults, I gather) on my trip to Costa Rica, the hardships that life there presented seemed surprising and difficult to cope with. What I kept thinking was how fortunate the people in Costa Rica are to have running water, indoor plumbing, electricity (most of the time), and paved roads. Many people there drive cars. Costa Rica is a success story in many ways--the government, from what I understand, has worked hard to make sure that the people reap the financial benefits from its booming tourism industry. However, the standard of living is still lower than in the U.S., and our youth recognized that. I think they were really changed and challenged by that realization.

I am still processing this experience. As I try to do every time I travel, I kept a travel journal while I was in Costa Rica. I will share some of my thoughts from my journal in my next post.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Costa Rica or Bust

Costa Rica, here I come!

Tonight I am on my way to Costa Rica with twenty-seven youth, young adults, and adults from the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Lutheran Church (ELCA). We are going to teach at Campamento de Ninos with an organization called Pura Vida Missions. Pura Vida Missions is a Christian, non-denominational servant organization that seeks "to transform lives by providing Christ-centered, life-changing mission adventures." Campamento de Ninos is Pura Vida's version of what we Americans would call Vacation Bible School.

When we are done with our week of service, we will be headed to the Pacific Ocean for a few days of sight-seeing, relaxing, and "beaching." I probably won't have access to a computer until I return, but I promise to keep my journal and post a blog or two (and maybe some pictures!) when I get back.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

What Gen Y Really Wants

There was an article in the July 16 issue of Time magazine called "Work-Life Balance: What Gen Y Really Wants". It speaks to certain aspects of the young-adult problem, and also addresses the need for businesses to adapt their way of thinking about hiring and employee retention or else risk losing the young, 20-something energy and brainpower.

Gen Y is a difficult group to define. There are differing ideas about who Generation Y is. For example, I was born right on the cusp between Generations X and Y. Most scholars define Generation X as ending and Generation Y as beginning sometime between 1975 and 1980. I think it is safe to say that if you are reading this blog in 2007 and you are a 20-something, then you are a member of Generation Y.

The article basically looks at trends in the 20-something workplace. 20-somethings value things that previous generations didn't when it comes to their jobs. "For these new 20-something workers, the line between work and home doesn't really exist. They just want to spend their time in meaningful and useful ways, no matter where they are." Young adults value things in the workplace such as friendships, being able to work remotely, and corporate support for volunteering. And, 20-somethings aren't afraid to take their skills elsewhere if a job is not fulfilling enough. The search for meaning and the huge amount of options they have provide them with the luxury of being choosy when it comes to work. They are in demand and they know it. The fact that so many 20-somethings move back home after college and take time to travel or dabble in entrepreneurship offers them the advantage of taking their time to find a job they really want.

When I read this article, I thought two things: first, I really see myself in this discussion about 20-somethings. You might, too. Statements like "It feels normal for Gen Y employees to check in by Blackberry all weekend as long as they have flexibility during the week" sound like me (I readily admit I am an email junkie and check my work email from home all the time). "Generation Y's search for meaning makes [employer] support for volunteering among the benefits it values most." This also sounds like me--I don't want to be stuck in a meaningless office job my entire life. I want to EXPERIENCE life while helping others experience it, too.

Second, the search for meaning really seems key to defining 20-somethings, and it is not just the church that is getting that. When I first started working in young adult ministry, I thought that the church seemed like such a natural place for 20-somethings to end up because we can provide so many things they are looking for! Jesus Christ provides an ending to that endless search for meaning. However, it appears that the world is also catching on. Employers who are hoping to hold on to their 20-something workers are having to provide them with meaning. I'm sure there are a lot of 20-somethings reading this blog who have quit a job because it seemed meaningless, stupid, degrading, or whatever (I know I have!). Well, employers are starting to catch on and are changing the way they think about the workplace in order to hold on to their young potential-filled new-hires. That just proves that... the church is going to have to make some changes, too, if we want to attract and keep 20-somethings involved.

One way for the church to do that is through the three things I mentioned earlier that 20-somethings value: friendships, being able to work remotely, and support for volunteerism. Here is what I propose as a start:

  1. Building friendships with people our own age who have similar interests as us may bring us to church if our friends value it, too. Gen Y is big on trust, and you have to earn it--but once you do, we are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. Building non-threatening relationships on neutral ground around Christ-centered themes will encourage interest in the church. Even if they never physically ENTER a church building, groups like this are still a part of the greater CHURCH ("Where 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, I am there among them", Matthew 18:20), and are being successful with young adults. How do we do this? Think "Starbucks Bible Study," "Theology Pub," or "Happy Hour Fellowship" for starters.


  2. Being able to work remotely means having access to your community and what's important to you from somewhere else. It means doing outreach via email, blogs, instant messaging, and other virtual means. We are doing it right now. I've seen news reports recently on Virtual Church. This is a new trend that is becoming important to people that we should not ignore (I personally feel that there needs to be a personal, relational aspect to Virtual Church in order for it to really be the Body of Christ, but that is another blog).


  3. Volunteering is HUGE among Generation Y. This ties into our search for meaning and our desire for something MORE. Any successful church program for 20-somethings is going to provide opportunities for service. Gen Y wants to feel like we are making a difference, and we aren't likely to stick around for real long if we think something is meaningless.

This is a really interesting article that I suggest you read. Even though it is an article about the business world, I think we need to pay attention to what it can tell the church about how to reach Gen Y. You can access the article here.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Lutefisk and the Decline of the Mainline Denominations

A few weeks ago I attended the ELCA's first "large congregations" event. This was an event for staff and select members of ELCA congregations that worship 500 people or more on a Sunday morning. At Trinity, we worship around 1,200 people on average. We are the only congregation in our synod that is that large, and we are also one of the only Lutheran congregations on the east coast that is that large. I have been told that we are the largest Lutheran church east of the Mississippi River and the 11th largest in the country.

Because of this, one of the frustrations that the staff at Trinity faces is that we are not like other people. We have a hard time relating to many of the problems found in smaller parishes. We don't consider ourselves to be better, just different. It is also sometimes difficult to relate to our colleagues who work in smaller parishes, because our needs and challenges are often different. Granted, some of our problems are the SAME (attendance and accountability issues, for example), but many of them are just on a different scale and need to be handled in a different way than they would be in a smaller congregation.

So, this "large congregations" event was an opportunity for us to network with other congregations who are similar to us in size and makeup. It was also an opportunity to learn about ministries in other congregations, brainstorm new ideas, hear amazing speakers, and be challenged to grow, change, and try new things. In many ways, that is exactly what happened. I think I can speak for most of the folks on my staff when I say that we were challenged, refreshed, and ready to try new things by the time the event was over. The worship was amazing (for the most part), the music was uplifting, and the speakers and workshops were all very helpful.

I want to share with you one thing that I learned at this conference, however, that is rather alarming to me.

Lutherans have known for a long time that our membership numbers, along with the membership numbers of other Mainline Protestant denominations (Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, etc.) are declining. The Evangelical and Non-Denominational churches are growing in leaps and bounds, while the Mainline Protestant denominations, at least in the U.S., are shrinking.

Now, I know there are a lot of reasons for this. I have heard a lot of theories about why this might be. There have been LOTS of books written about why this might be, not all of them flattering to the Lutherans, and not all of them very nice to the Evangelicals, either. I'm not going to go into all of that here. I'm sure I don't even know all of the reasons for this phenomenon. The reason that became terribly clear to me over the course of this conference, however, can be summed up in one word: Lutefisk!

Now, I know you are probably wondering, "What the HECK is lutefisk?" If you are asking that question, then you OBVIOUSLY don't have a Norwegian heritage. My Norwegian ancestors are probably rolling over in their graves right now. Wikipedia defines lutefisk this way: "a traditional dish of the Nordic countries made from air-dried whitefish and soda lye." Wikipedia also defines soda lye as "a caustic solution which is made from ashes and is used for glass, soap making, and certain food preparations." All in all, lutefisk is some pretty nasty stuff. That having been said, however, it is considered a delicacy among Norwegian-Americans and is often eaten during the weeks approaching Christmas.

Needless to say, lutefisk lovers everywhere get a lot of flack for liking the stuff. It has kind of become a thing of legends, though. When I attended seminary in Minnesota, they honored lutefisk once a year by serving it, along with other traditional Norwegian dishes like lefse (which is not nearly as offensive). Minnesota is the Norwegian capital of the U.S. It is also the Lutheran capital of the U.S. Southwest Minnesota has the highest concentration of Lutherans per square mile in the WORLD. So, there are a lot of Lutherans there. There are a lot of Norwegians (and other Scandinavians), and there is a lot of lutefisk. These three things have pretty much become synonymous in that part of the world--Norwegian, Lutheran, lutefisk-eater.

I'm sure by now you are probably wondering why I think lutefisk has anything to do with the decline of Lutheranism (as if lutefisk alone isn't enough to scare people away!). Lutefisk itself is not so much the problem. The problem is what lutefisk represents.

So there I was, sitting in this "large congregations" conference in Minnesota, surrounded, for the most part, by good mid-western Lutherans of Scandinavian heritage, and the lutefisk references and jokes were just unbearable. And then it hit me! If you are not a Lutheran of Scandinavian heritage, if you have never lived in Minnesota and become familiar with the lutefisk phenomenon, then these references will mean absolutely nothing to you. My parishioners in Southeastern Pennsylvania are mostly of German, Irish, and/or Italian background and know nothing about lutefisk. To them, mid-western-lutefisk-eating-Norwegian-heritage Lutheranism is IRRELEVANT!

That is a big reason why the Mainline Denominations are failing. They have ceased to be relevant. We are preaching a message of lutefisk to a generation that eats sushi. Now, don't get me wrong--the gospel, the message of the saving grace of Jesus Christ, is NEVER irrelevant. What it ultimately comes down to, however, is getting that message to people in a way that is relevant to them. Using lutefisk lingo with a sushi crowd will do nothing but make them feel unwelcomed, not-in-the-loop, and will ultimately result in them writing you off.

There are lots of relevant ways for us to spread the message of Jesus Christ. I remember visiting a parish in downtown Minneapolis that in the 1950's and 60's worshiped more than 3,000 people each week. In 2004, when I was there, worship attendance had dwindled to around 200. Upon inquiring, I discovered the reason: the congregation was filled with Norwegian immigrants in the 1950's who joined this church because of the cultural and historical link with others in the congregation. The things that went on there were relevant to Norwegian-American immigrants of the day.

Over the years, however, the demographic of that neighborhood changed. This Lutheran church is situated one block off Lake Street. For those of you who don't know, Lake Street has become the home and place of business of many of Minneapolis' African, Asian, and Arab immigrants. Just like in the 1950's, that neighborhood is still a thriving place for immigrants. Unlike in the 1950's, however, now those immigrants are not Norwegian, are often not Christian, and are generally not white.

This congregation has been clinging to the past of its Norwegian heritage while the world outside has changed and grown. Being a white, middle-class, Norwegian church in that neighborhood is no longer relevant. If that congregation refuses to change its story, then it will eventually die.

There are so many things that that congregation could be doing to become relevant in that community. Offering free legal help, medical clinics, and English classes would be a great place to start. Building relationships with local shops and restaurants and inviting them into their church building to feed people and sell their goods would be another interesting way to go. I know that these things may not be easy. I understand the politics of congregations--many church members might object, and some might even leave. But is the ultimate price for ceasing to be relevant really worth it?

This congregation is, of course, just an example. I think that we all need to be thinking about how we as Christians can be relevant to the people of this world. It is a challenge that I face every day when I enter the doors of my church building to go to work. Trinity is a wonderful place to work and to be a part of the Christian community. I love being there. However, just because Trinity is big and has had incredible growth in the past doesn't mean that we've got it all figured out. In fact, I would say that we have a lot of work to do if we want to remain relevant. Our congregation is 98% white in a community that is now almost 11% southeast-Asian. Our congregation has a lot of money because we have a lot of very generous, well-off people who give to us, but the average person in Lansdale today is struggling financially. What can we be doing better so that we become relevant to those people who are living in Lansdale and who are not a part of our Christian community? As blessed as we are, we still have some work to do!

People are hurting. They have real problems and needs and the church has the answer that will help them. Jesus Christ loves them and wants to be a part of their lives. He died so that we may have eternal life. But if we use words of lutefisk to share this good news with a sushi world, then our message will not be heard.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Reflections from Appalachia: Part II

Or, From Charity to Justice

When thinking about the work that ASP is doing, I am proud that I was able to be a part of it. Given the opportunity, I would go again. I am sure that next year we will plan a similar trip, and hopefully even more young adults will participate than this year. It is good to be drawn out of your comfort zone and pushed into a different culture and socio-economic situation than the one you live in. Although the participants go to help the people of Appalachia, I believe that in many instances the ones serving learn more and are ministered to more than the ones being served. ASP helps teach youth, young adults, and adults who come to serve about the realities of life.

One of the frustrating things about ASP for me, however, is the challenge of moving beyond charity and towards justice. Fixing someone's trailer is nice and certainly makes her situation more comfortable, but it does little to solve the societal issues that make her as poor as she is. Don't get me wrong--the work that ASP is accomplishing is very important for the individuals whose lives they touch. However, even though a person's trailer may be warmer, safer, and drier, she is still poor and unemployed. It's similar to a soup kitchen--feeding the hungry is a wonderful thing to do. These people have an immediate need, which is to eat. However, they will just come back hungry again tomorrow unless you work to fix the bigger issue that is causing them to be hungry in the first place.

I don't claim to know everything about ASP's agenda in Appalachia, and as I have already stated, I do believe they are doing a wonderful ministry there. Some of the evenings we spent in Knox County were spent discussing the issues of poverty in the area, what we think about it, and what we think we could do about it. We were asked if we believed that the situation there is hopeless. We were taught about the history that brought poverty into that part of our country. We were taught about the rich heritage there. We were also taught the statistics--in some parts of Appalachia, including in Knox County where we were, unemployment can reach 20%. That means that 1 out of every 5 people is unemployed. At what point do we move beyond fixing people's homes and talking about the situation, and towards doing something to improve the root causes of the problem?

The manual that I received from ASP prior to going to Appalachia says on page 17 that "[ASP founder Tex Evans] created ASP not to solve the poverty issues in Appalachia but to change lives." I think there is something missing here. ASP does a wonderful job at building relationships and increasing the understanding of poverty in those who come to serve. ASP also does a fine job at changing individual families' lives by making their homes warmer, safer, and drier. But--what is happening to change the root cause of the problem?

I have to admit that I know full well that there are no easy answers. I believe we should be moving from charity (fixing peoples' trailers) and towards justice (solving the problem of poverty in Appalachia so that everyone's quality of life improves), but I do not know how to do that. Maybe if I had made my home in Appalachia in service to the local people, I might understand better how to do that. But, maybe not. I lived in Africa for two years in a place where most people support their families on less than $1.00 a day. After being there for two years, I still do not know what the solution is to their problems. I do have some ideas about how to help solve some of them. But, they have been made victims of governments and militias and so many other powers beyond their control. How do we go about changing history?

I do not believe that the situation in Appalachia is hopeless. But I also wonder what I can effectively do about it. Rollie Martinson, one of my professors in seminary once said to me (I'm paraphrasing here) that the size of the problem may be as big as a beach ball, and what you can do about it might be the size of a marble. But, at least you have done that much, and if everybody did a marble's worth, then many marbles would eventually fill the beach ball and eliminate the problem. Maybe that is what ASP is doing--slowly filling the beach ball with marbles, one run-down trailer at a time. In the process, they are educating people about the issues in Appalachia. Maybe one day that will lead to a solution. Maybe we are slowly moving that way now... so slowly, that I can not see it with my limited vision.

Historical, social, and economic factors in Appalachia have aligned themselves in a frustrating and seemingly endless cycle of poverty. We can not change the past. How do we move ahead into a future with hope?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Reflections from Appalachia: Part I

This is part one of at least two! Please stay tuned for the second piece. I will be on the road again this week, so I promise to write when I can!

I just spent a week in Knox County, Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachian Mountain coal country. I went with a group of adults and young adults from Trinity to serve with Appalachia Service Project, or ASP. ASP is an organization that helps make lower-income families' homes in Appalachia safer, warmer, and drier. You can visit their website at http://www.asphome.org/.

There is a lot of poverty in the Appalachian region of the U.S. One of the things that struck me during my time in Knox County was that we as affluent Americans always seem to think of poverty as an inner-city or a Third-World problem. My guess is that many people do not know about the extreme poverty that exists right in the heart of our country. There are not many opportunities for economic enrichment in Appalachia. The woman whose home we were repairing has lived in a trailer her entire life. When we asked her what she would do if she ever owned a home, she said she wouldn't know what to do with one. A run-down trailer is all she has ever known, and it is probably all she will ever know.

The woman on whose home we worked (I don't want to tell you her name for privacy's sake) makes about $600 per month from public assistance. She is unemployed and feeds her family (two sons and a daughter) and several animals with food stamps. The trailer was in complete disrepair, although it has a new roof and some new flooring because of work ASP did there last summer. We were there to replace the ceilings and insulation that have deteriorated because of previous water damage.

The work was hard, hot, and dirty. Six people in a small room in a tin trailer in June made for some sweaty and smelly work. Not to mention that bringing down rotted fiber-board ceiling and insulation also means wearing face-masks, goggles, long-sleeved shirts, and getting REALLY DIRTY! But the work was fulfilling as we saw the old insulation and ceiling come down, and the new insulation and ceiling go up, complete with new light fixtures and molding. It was nice to see the work taking shape, but even more magnificent was the look on our homeowner's face as she saw the rooms being transformed. It seemed like the little things, more than the big things, were what were most important for her. The new ceiling was great, but what she was really thrilled about were the new light fixtures, a newly-working ceiling-light switch in the bedroom, a no-longer-creaky floorboard, a fixed front screen-door spring, and a previously non-existent dryer vent in her bathroom.

I am still processing the importance of this experience for myself and for the homeowner who we got to know so well in such a short time. She has lived in Knox County her entire life, and has never been more than an hour from home. The fact that we came all the way from Pennsylvania just to help her was amazing to her. It also shows the contrast between our affluence and opportunity and hers. She will never have the chance to cross state lines to help someone else. One of the things that struck me is that in the town where we live, Pierre and I are not really considered well off at all. There are times when we really struggle to make ends meet. And yet, we have so much more than this woman, both materially and in terms of opportunity. It really puts things in perspective--maybe my problems aren't as bad as I think they are!

When I was in missionary orientation prior to moving to Africa, a man named Tony Gittins came and spoke to us about his missionary experience. He had spent 25+ years in Sierra Leone building houses, hospitals, and all kinds of buildings. After he left Sierra Leone, civil war broke out and all the buildings that he had worked so hard to build were destroyed. He said that people always asked him what he felt about the fact that everything he had built in Sierra Leone no longer existed. And he always replied that the work that he did that actually mattered wasn't building buildings--it was building relationships, and those couldn't be destroyed by war. What matters, he said, is the relationships you build, and the people you love, and the people who love you. THAT's what lasts, and that's what's important.

That's what I think ASP is about, too. Yes, making people's homes warmer, safer, and drier is an important and worthwhile task. However, the importance of the experience goes a long way beyond construction. We build relationships and minister to those families, and those families minister to us.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Filling Your Cup

I recently blogged this and then somehow LOST the post! *sniff* It has taken me a few days to get over it... Now let me try again...

One of the challenges that I have as a church worker is finding time to take care of myself. As I have been thinking about this problem recently, it occurred to me that many young adults probably experience the same problem. We are so busy working, studying, volunteering, taking care of our families, and other things that time management and finding time for ourselves can be a real issue. Many days I hardly have time to spend with my husband--how am I supposed to find time for myself, too???

The problem is that we all need to take care of ourselves in order to truly be successful in the other areas of our lives. I cannot minister to others if I myself am burnt out. I cannot care for my husband or my children in ways that they deserve and need to be cared for if I am too tired. I cannot be a good employee or volunteer if I do not take the time I need to recharge my own batteries.

I had a Christian ethics professor in college named Robert Benne who talked about this as "filling your cup" and "spilling your cup." As Christians, spouses, parents, co-workers, and in many other aspects of our lives, we are constantly demanded to "spill our cup" into various places. We are called to give of ourselves so that other peoples' cups might be filled. However, eventually, we too, will be left with an empty cup. If we don't take the time that we need to fill our own cup, then how successful are we going to be in spilling it out to others?

Here are some ways in which I think I could work toward filling my cup. These are "growing edges" for me--things I see that I need but could become better at doing. Where do you see your own "growing edges" in this list?

  1. Eat healthy. This may sound like a no-brainer, because we hear it all the time. But, healthy eating takes work! I love to eat well, and yet the temptations of the office and "easy, quick" food are sometimes overwhelming. It is SO much easier to order a pizza or Chinese take-out at the end of a long day than to cook something. It is so much more fun to eat at Taco Bell with co-workers than have a sandwich in my office! Sometimes, that is OK--I believe in doing everything in moderation. The problem for me recently has been finding the balance. I feel like I am indulging too much and not being attentive enough to what I know is good for me.

  2. Exercise regularly. Again, this may sound like a no-brainer. The thing is, I KNOW exercise is good for me, and I know I feel good when I do it. But, I have a really hard time finding the time to do it. Actually, the truth is, I could find the time to do it, but I would rather be doing something else! When I was in seminary, I ran "religiously" (ha ha). But, I had a partner and it seemed easier to find free time to do it. I really struggle with this one.


  3. Take time to just "be". Even when I am home and am supposed to be "relaxing", it seems like there is always something to do. I have a hard time doing nothing. Instead, I find myself doing laundry, washing dishes, surfing the Internet, making the bed, or something. I wish I knew better how to just "be". I would love to be able to sit still with Pandora (our cat) on my lap and read a magazine. Instead, she hates getting on my lap because she knows that it will disappear as soon as I think of something that "has" to be done.


  4. Prayer and devotional life. Just because you work in the church doesn't mean this comes easily! I think God and I have a pretty good relationship. I try to really be attentive to where God is speaking in my life. However, I tend to pray and study the Bible "when I think about it," instead of being intentional about doing it on a regular basis. I think there is something to be said for being spontaneous in my relationship with God... I just also think it is healthy to practice regular devotion, Bible study, and prayer.


  5. Be intentional in your relationships. Be honest and communicate. If you need time alone, talk to your spouse/friends about it. On the other hand, sometimes spending intentional time in those relationships also helps me fill my cup. There is nothing better than coming home at the end of a long day and talking with my husband over dinner. This is something that ministers to me and also helps maintain and build our relationship. Filling my cup doesn't necessarily have to happen when I am by myself.

There may be some other things that help me fill my cup that I will think of and add to the list later. Right now, I am going to go home and sit on my couch with Pandora.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Are You Having a Quarter-Life Crisis?

This is a post written by Chris, a close friend and member of my tribe, so-to-speak:

Thanks to Becca for allowing me some “soap-box” time here on her blog.

A few weeks ago, I was intrigued by a book that sat in her office entitled Quarterlife Crisis authored by Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner, both of Washington, DC. At the time, I thought I too could be having a quarter-life crisis. I had just lost a job, was about to start another one…and, oh yeah, I’m about to become a father. Yeah, I reasoned, I could be having a quarterlife crisis. As I read through the short book, I realized many of the crises addressed where familiar to me. They included finding a job, finding a career, finding a soul-mate, and balancing work and social life among others.

A Quick Book Review

Despite my status as a “twenty-something” and my keen understanding of some of the crises faced by those interviewed for the book, I began to have some misgivings about what I was reading. Several things occurred to me and other things disturbed me. See what you think and post a comment or two.

  • There are countless crises in each person’s life. What’s so special or different about the twenty-something crisis? Do any of us remember the “college crisis” when we had to pick “the right” school or lives would be over? What about those of us whose parents have divorced? Was that not a crisis in our lives? Maybe the quarterlife crisis is different because it’s the first real crisis after we get out of school. But that supposes that all change leads to crisis and I’m not ready to admit that. Nevertheless, the authors and those they’ve interviewed seem to place more emphasis on this crisis because so many parts of our lives converge at one time. I think I can buy that, but I also think calling it a crisis is more than a little alarmist.
  • My overwhelming feeling throughout the book was that many of these twenty-somethings were busy whining instead of doing. Based on their comments, the interviewees seem much too self-absorbed in their worries and woes, and therefore they forget about others who may be feeling the same or worse. Their self-absorption made them believe that they were on their own – that they were the only ones feeling the way they did. Someone could make the case that self-absorption is endemic to our American culture, but it’s possible that twenty-somethings the world over feel that way. I’ll leave that point to my friends who have traveled the world a bit more than I.
  • What I wanted to yell as I read this book is: “IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU!” The world is a big place with lots of people doing lots of things. Sometimes if you just get up the nerve to do something—anything—it can make all the difference in the world. How many times have you done something you didn’t think you liked and found out that, in fact, you did like it. These twenty-somethings seemed so paralyzed by what they were afraid to do that some of them wound up doing nothing.

The authors admit in their epilogue that their critics are likely saying “Stop WHINING!” I laughed when I read that because I definitely felt that way. As my father used to say, “Life’s not fair so deal with it.” His statement wasn’t optimistic or pessimistic; it was realistic.

What about Young Adult Ministry?

So how does this all tie into young adult ministry? It’s a good question. The obvious answer is that Quarterlife Crisis can give its readers a peek into the mind of the young adult. The knowledge gained can be used to develop programs that would appeal to young adults. For instance, the authors make the point that twenty-somethings—for whatever reason—don’t discuss their worries or common struggles with each other. A young adult program at a church where individuals can discuss their common struggles related to jobs, relationships, families and other topics may have practical application in their lives.

Exactly how to do that is the challenge. Most twenty-somethings feel that they can’t even tell their close friends about such things, and going to a young adult program that addresses such things may smell more of therapy than of fellowship. Still, it’s worth trying.

One Last Personal Note

I’ve been attending church pretty regularly since I was in high-school. In high-school it was a social event for me, a place to meet new and exciting people. In college it formed (i) a basis for my faith, (ii) several long-lasting friendships and (iii) a deeper recognition of my strengths and weaknesses. After college it became a home for me—a place I could go and feel at home.

Through it all though, attending services, praying and listening to others helped me remember that I wasn’t alone and it helped me understand that I wasn’t the center of the universe (occasionally it still helps dispel that myth).

I welcome your comments, arguments and any other constructive criticism.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Out of Africa (with apologies to Isak Dinesen)

One of the challenges that I have had since returning from Africa almost 5 years ago is adapting to the fact that it is really hard to believe that Africa and America can co-exist on the same planet. You may be thinking that I am just about to reaffirm all the bad things you may have heard about Africa. When people find out that I lived there, they often want to know about the war and violence I saw there, because that is all they know about it. That is all the media tells us. In this and in many other ways, we are victims of our media.

The truth is, I didn't see much violence in Cameroon, the country where I was living. I have seen and heard more about violence on the streets of Philadelphia since moving here than I ever did in Cameroon.

What I did see, and what I continue to think about, is a very distorted distribution of the world's food and economic resources. It is odd to me that Americans have a lot of money and things and are a part of a society that tells us that more is better. And yet, few of us are really happy. On the other hand, Cameroonians have very little in the way of material goods or money. Despite their problems with poverty, hunger, and corruption, many Cameroonians lead very happy lives. The simplicity of life almost seems to be a part of what makes them happy. I think that Americans can learn a lot from Africans in this regard.

We Americans spend a lot of money on stuff. Have you ever really thought about how much money you spend on things you really don't need? We have no problem dropping a couple hundred dollars on one item we think we really want or need. Yet, many Africans live on less than $250 dollars a year. That's less than $1 a day. And they have to take care of themselves and their families on that amount.

This year for Easter, my husband and I sent some money to a family we know in Cameroon so that they could have an Easter dinner. The mother of this family was also supposed to give 2,000FCFA (Central African Francs) of that money to each child in the house. 2,000FCFA is the equivalent of about 4 U.S. dollars. It was more money than some of these children had ever seen. We called the house after Easter and spoke with the children. In talking to one of the girls who is in middle school, I asked her what she did with the money. I, being an American, and having been out of Africa for some time now, have forgotten what life is like there. I expected her to say what any normal American child would have said--"I'm saving it," or "I bought ____ toy I've been wanting," or, "I bought new clothes," or... something. But do you know what she said??? She replied, "I ate." I said, "You ate?" and she said, "Yes."

2,000FCFA, the equivalent of 4 U.S. dollars, would buy breakfast for a little girl in Cameroon for almost 3 weeks. Most days, she probably goes without breakfast. She also probably goes without lunch. She will eat one meal a day, in the evenings before going to bed. Some days, she may not eat anything.

I spend more than 4 U.S. dollars on one meal when I eat fast food. That fast food meal probably contains more calories than many African children consume in 2-3 days.

Think about that! I am wondering what we can do as a society to fix this problem. I am also wondering what we need to be doing about it as Christians. We can not say it is not our problem--in fact, much of this problem has been caused by us and our capitalist system and colonialist ways. In addition, Jesus told us and modeled for us that as followers of Christ, it is our problem.

I am not saying that we need to feel bad about eating fast food every now and then. I am just wondering what our responsibility is and should be to these people. I am also asking that we think about the ways in which we spend money and how that literally "buys into" a very warped system and a much larger problem.

I am sad about this because I do not know how to change it. It is a problem that is bigger than you or me. It is a problem that "sending money" will not solve--when the money is gone, once that little girl has eaten her 3 weeks worth of breakfasts, the problem will still be there. What are we going to do?

Friday, April 6, 2007

People Who Ruin Church for Other People

I have a friend who really has a problem with the church. The thing is, I know that one of the main reasons she has a problem with the church is because somebody else ruined it for her. That other person happens to be a pastor. He made her feel as though she could not be a part of the church unless she behaved in a certain way and thought in a certain way. Now, I don't want to speak for her, but I think maybe because of that bad experience she had with that pastor, she feels as though she can't trust the church and the people in it. And that is just wrong. Why do people have to ruin church for other people?

Many times, in our short-sighted sinfulness, we think we know better than God does, and that ends up hurting people. Telling someone they are not welcome because they are gay, or poor, or ask too many questions, or belong to a different Christian denomination than we do, puts God and God's grace in a BOX. Who are we to say that God would not welcome these people, too? Didn't Jesus eat with society's "undesireables?" Wouldn't he also eat with the church's so-called "undesireables?"

All I'm saying is that if we REALLY believe in a Christ who died for EVERYBODY'S sins (including our own!), and if we REALLY believe in a God who is "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love," then who are we to say who would or would not be loved by God? Who are we to ruin church for other people by telling them they are not welcome? Is not the call of the Christian to love one another, as Christ has loved us?

Grace is God's ultimate gift--God's love and forgiveness given freely for all. We cannot limit God's grace. It is not up to us to do so--it is not up to us to put it in a box. God's grace is wider and deeper and more profound than we could ever imagine with our limited human understanding. Didn't Jesus show this to us in the very way he lived and died and rose again FOR ALL OF US?

We really need to think hard about how we present ourselves and our faith to others, because, in everything we do, we are ambassadors for Christ. We are CALLED as Christians to model God's grace to everyone--especially to those who do not know God's love. Imagine how horrible it would be if because of our actions, someone decided that he or she did NOT want to know God or be a part of the church.

Someone else who is very close to me has left the church because, as he says, "If that's the way Christians are going to behave, then I don't want to be Christian!" This is not the legacy we want to leave. What a sin! I am ashamed of those Christians who ruin church for other people. I want to shout it from the mountaintops: "That's NOT who we are, and that's NOT the God I know! God loves you, and God wants to be in relationship with you! Come back and experience what it means to know God's grace and love!"