Why: hope and lent

Last week one of my highschoolers told me that hope probably doesn’t deserve to be a stand-alone sort of word. She suggested it isn’t a distinct concept, separate from any other idea we communicate with words. It’s overused, she pointed out, and as I listened to the State of the Union last night — given by a man whom I watched campaign on hope and take office my last year of college when the economy collapsed — I had to agree. To my student, hope is simply another word we use to describe something we really want, a deep and longing desire.

We were outside, amid trees stripped to grey nakedness, with ice under foot and clouded blue sky over head, dotted by geese who’ve flocked to our wide open spaces. She’s a cynic and I’ve only just started my recovery from cynic to hopeful realist. We plodded along after she said all that, each looking to and fro across a landscape seemingly barren and devoid of hope. Between us I could feel the silence grow, soft and fearful as I wrestled for words to speak since I so vehemently disagreed with her.

But how does one explain hope?

It’s Ash Wednesday and there are people wandering the world with grey soot smudged on their faces in the form of a poorly drawn cross made by dirty fallen thumbs looking forward to redemption. But it’s a future redemption and today the ground is still hard and cold. Lent begins and we give things up: meat, sugar, drink or other things upon which we depend instead of finding rest in God. While the practice of fast is certainly formational, it’s also responsive and it’s worth considering in these winter months slowly turning to spring — what we are responding to.

There’s a thing that in seminary we like to call the “grand narrative” or a “controlling narrative” which serves as an interpretive lens for how one reads and interprets Scripture. As a good evangelical seminary, we usually consider this to be the story of Jesus Christ, the story of God coming in to save creation that has fallen down a winding rabbit hole towards greater and greater levels of chaos. We point to his words and the prophecies and the narrative of the seasons to say that Jesus will one day come again to restore and renew all things.

Lent, I think, the season of waiting and going without, is a response in recognition of this redemptive process. Recognizing that Jesus has come, and will come, and learning what it means to wait hopefully in the midst of this present age. Jesus is coming. He’s here, he has come. But I have not only been saved I am still in the process of being saved.* In a similar way, Lent reminds us that we are waiting. With creation we groan and wait and long for the renewal that comes in the end of times. We respond to the Gospel by entering into it; by acknowledging this period of waiting and hoping. Lent shows us we’re waiting, teaches us to long, and forms our hope for the future.

Hope, my friend said rightly, is an intense desire for something. I desperately long for violence to end, for wars to abate, for my family to come home. But there is more than just longing when it comes to the redemption of the world and the many things that make up that redemption. In the way that it’s used in political campaigns and  among high school lovers, hope is cheap and ill used, hardly needed as a word separated from desire and want. We want a better economy in the same way we hope for a job upon college graduation.

But this I’m learning: we don’t put our hopes in humanity and the world. We put it in the One who made those things and we put our faith in the promises handed down to us, the foundation of his faithfulness and the character that says he will fulfill what he has begun. This is what hope is, the faith and trust that God will see His promises through, the patient expectation that the earth will be renewed and the culmination of all things will include a new and distinctively different relationship with the One who is.

Hope is deep and more than simple desire. It pulls from the being of our person and rests on the foundation of previously fulfilled promises and the faith of those gone before us. Lent, the season of waiting helps us refocus that hope: away from created to Creator, towards coming redemption and fulfillment. Because in the liturgical season of waiting we are reminded that we are waiting existentially. We learn to long for renewal. We hang in suspension. This is the tension that Christians live in. Here, oh yes, here! But also not yet. We are expectant, anxiously so. We are waiting. And we know that it will come despite all our impatience! Despite persecutions, failures, and misunderstandings. We’re waiting, but not in empty desire.  We’re waiting in deep, founded, faithful hope.

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Phil 1. 6, 2.12

WHY: Doing Life

This week I’ve been staying with two of my high school students from youth group. It’s amazing how your life disappears when two kids enter the picture. They have homework, school events, friends and youth group. There are guitar lessons, art club and exams. Not to mention emails and junk mail from colleges. They’re out the door at 645 AM after what I hardly consider to be a real breakfast and they’re home again at 235 PM with homework and hungry mouths.

Last night we learned together how to plunge an overflowed toilet.

Tonight we’re probably going out to see a movie.

It’s a wonderful life?

When their parents left, their mother said to me that she hoped I’d have some opportunities to speak into their lives. Well, last night we talked about drinking and college and I told them all the reasons that they shouldn’t drink to excess. But I have a feeling that’s not exactly what mom meant.

What does it mean to teach kids? What does it mean when their lives are so busy? Between guitar lessons and loading the car full of DJ equipment for youth group, I’m not even sure when we’ll eat dinner tomorrow night.

We pray together before they go to bed. I told them I was writing a paper about Jesus and coffee and the importance of work for the human identity and purpose. They stared at me like I’d grown two heads. But it brought up a couple of questions… what does the crema of espresso have to do with expanding the Kingdom? And why did you stop listening to Ke$ha or half a dozen other artists?

I thought how one of my other high schoolers is going for a run with me on Friday. She has questions to ask me, apparently. We’ve just become official as mentor/mentee and I’m freaking out with my own mentor because God knows I talk more than I listen; I am a Franks and Kormick by descent and there’s mistaking that when I open my mouth. I looked  at the coffee cup when she asked me, in the same shop where I found Ethan and my mentor and a new reason to live. I stared at the brown liquid, the soy foam dissolved into sweet joy. I told her the same thing that G told me years ago, before I lived with her and the family, before I learned what it meant to be at peace in the midst of chaos.

The kids aren’t home yet, but they will be soon. I’ll have to turn down Mumford and Sons while we do homework, all jammed into the office together. Tonight, after dinner, Ethan and I will read the daily liturgy and though it isn’t expected of them, I’ll invite the kids to join us. Ethan hasn’t been here, and I’ve missed our times of eating and reading together. This is what we do, after all, this is how we experience God, how we learn of Him, hear from Him and are challenged by the words of the fathers and the movement of the Spirit.

It’s like taking Rebekah running — where I can process and feel the glory of God in the pounding arteries beneath my skin and the bite of the cold winter wind on my face.

It’s like folding laundry with G while she told me about Jesus and peace and suffering.

We do life together. We invite people into our stories, our journeys. We walk alongside one another, holding hands, laughing and crying together and learning together along the way.

Perhaps there’s another way to teach, to speak into one another’s lives. If there is, I haven’t yet found it. But I’m no parent and so I am years away from knowing. I don’t make any claim to understanding what all this is about though I keep finding myself in the midst of it. There’s so much to learn, so much yet to find and discover. This is what I do know:

walking in the way that Jesus calls always creates reason for talking, reasons for speaking into one another’s lives as we grow into the people he has called us to be.

Small Talk and Weather

It’s snowing on the blog, because it’s Christmas time! I hope you enjoy the snow like me, because it’s going to sweep across the screen and fall down for about a month.

Speaking of weather, which is one of the most boring and obvious topics of discussion in human conversation, I had to talk a lot about it yesterday. It’s that great, time wasting small talk topic that I have begun to encounter more and more in life. It’s especially easy to call into play right now, because Colorado is experiencing a bizarre-San-Diego-like-December. So, when there’s that awkward gap in conversation I keep throwing out, “can you believe this weather? I mean, weird! I’m wearing scarves in protest; but you know, Ethan is loving the fact that he can still wear shorts.” I’ve become quite proficient with rambling about the sun, the dry patches on the lawn [that I don’t have] and the drought. Lately, it’s a skill come in handy as I continue to find myself in settings where there’s nothing else to converse about.

You might be wondering where I keep being forced into use of my weathering skills and deflecting deeper conversational topics. I haven’t traveled, seen distant relatives or attended any major events full of strangers with tired hands and distracted eyes. No, the sad thing is, I keep having small talk like this at a church where I serve (though I no longer attend).

Ethan and I left service yesterday after both of us had worked an exhausting three hours with very cranky and upset children. We had wandered into the sanctuary and chatted with a few people we might have once considered our community. But the thing that pervaded all the talk about jobs, relationships and Christmas was the weather.

Now, I’ll admit, Colorado is experiencing some odd weather this year. But that’s not the reason everyone continues to fall back on the topic.

It’s because we don’t know what else to talk about.

This seems a bit wrong–a church community where I’ve attended for about six years should include a bit more depth, shouldn’t it? I think I ought to know people and can rightfully expect them to know me in return. Can we discuss my anxiety issues that are finally coming under control? What about our financial burdens: school, car problems, worn out clothes that can no longer be patched? Should we mention that E has moved four times in less than a year and that the instability is really hard? We don’t talk about those things, and I’m not entirely sure why. Certainly, I don’t want to hold this congregation separately from the rest my life experiences and point an accusing finger. But Ethan and I have really struggled to get below the surface with people.

It isn’t just a problem at the church. I have a friend who shared that this happens in his family often and he finally confronted everyone about it a few weeks ago. A student in my youthgroup recently told me they experience something similar every week that we meet.

Which is why I am wondering: why is it so hard to get beyond the weather and other small talk–in our churches, our families, everywhere? What can we do to change that?

The Scrapbook

The youth group I serve wit has recently started this project to help students look back on their lives and remember what God has done for them and things that have changed for them since knowing Jesus. I think it’s a good thing to do, I once listened to a sermon on the “Art of Remembering” by Matt Chandler and found it really helpful to consider why we recall the past. It’s important for us to keep in mind what God has done in order for us to be thankful, humble and encouraged. The past often provides incredible hope for the future: Mary, the mother of Jesus, had great hope for the future based on the promises that God had kept to her people throughout history. As Christians, we are people of hope and that hope is based on historical acts of God.

But in a culture that focuses on the future and lives in the days of tomorrow, it can be hard for Americans to remember all that has come before. In Latin America, much of life was in the past: people give directions filtered by the way cities used to look–you turn left where the old court building used to be. We remembered battles when the French were forced out–days as important as independence. There were holidays to celebrate the dead and their lives, days to sit at their graves and reminisce about lives well lived and the hope of meeting them again in the future.

The Jews had festivals that reminded them of their past: the Passover, Sukkot, Purim and others. These were days to mark and celebrate how God rescued them, provided food in the desert, freed them and promised a hope for the future of them and their children. There are rituals that go with these festivals, traditions of food and songs, candles to be lit and roles to be played among the participants. The world was built around remembering what God had done, recalling his acts of great love and grace–and then walking forward in hope based on the past.

That’s what we are trying to do for the kids in our youthgroup and the means we’ve ocme up with is to create a scrapbook for each student. If you know anything about me, you’ll know I haven’t patience or time for scrapbooking. I like things in black and white, clean and uncluttered. I don’t do glitter, raised letters or flowered paper. I’d rather weave together a story in words and sing it to you while E plays the banjo and you’re eating my latest rendition of applie pie or cranberry cheesecake. I don’t do crafty. I bake, I write, I sing and I teach. So I have struggled to relate with the scrapbooking, though I understand (and appreciate) the idea of having something tangible for our students to remember the work of God. It’s our attempt to fill a gap in our culture and remind our students that God has done great things for them and so we can trust Him.

It’s an important task, helping them create, remember and look forward while grounded in God’s historic faithfulness. I told one of my girls that it’s important to remember the story of God’s work in our lives. I know that I myself often forget what He’s done and it’s good to be reminded… But a scrapbook? A few of the girls in my youth group don’t like the activity–I can only imagine how the boys feel about something so stereotypically girly. While I applaud the attempt of remembering…I can’t help but think, there’s got to be a better way of doing this….

Holiday Week Mondays

It’s Monday in the office and despite the fact that two of my coworkers were here around 730am, you can tell that none of us want to be here. My eyes won’t stop watering, Lisa practically limps to and from the printer as if her feet are deadened to the world with sleepy Monday blues and Jessica came in half an hour later than normal. We have a lot to do. I’ve a project to finish before the end of the month, the advent devotional should be coming out, there’s an appeal to be written and mailed and a lunch to plan, and a thousand envelopes to stuff. But the boss is on a flight back from Chicago and no one wants to be here.

One of my high school girls is working on Thursday–all day. I told her I’d come visit between my first Turkey Trot and dinner with friends. She’s at a retail store that is open all day Thursday and all night into Black Friday. I was in shock when she told me about it and then I almost cried. What’s wrong, America? Why are we working on holidays to allow people to get more in debt with stuff they don’t need? My girl should be with her family, eating too much food and reminiscing about holidays past or running a turkey trot with the youth group; not at work selling clothes and shoes.

In something I recently edited a writer noted that we should be working for “kingdom change” in our every day lives as parents, employees, leaders, couples and students. It’s a rough Monday. It’s 10am and the most monumental thing I’ve done is update a single website and turn in my time sheet. It’s a holiday week and no one wants to be here–I’d rather be buying sweet potatoes, baking biscotti and enjoying a run or some OT work. What would it be like to work on the most momentous of family holidays?

I’ve been wondering, if I was the manager at that store, would I buy everyone lunch? Invite them over for a late night Turkey Dinner? Would I tell them all to call in sick, so I could lock the doors and apologize to the corporation for apparent widespread illness? Would that be the kingdom, breaking in, standing against the status quo and authority? Would I refuse to schedule anyone at all and take the hit for believing that family and rest are more important than profit? Would that be counter-cultural and civilly disobedient in a way that Jesus might have appreciated: to value people more than money?

I don’t know that I have such courage but….it’s something worth pondering.

In the meantime, I’ll be picking up my high schooler for her half hour lunch and buying her something to eat to make the day a bit tolerable.

High School

On Wednesday night I went back to high school. I’ve done that a few times since graduating. I once went and visited an old teacher, actually lectured in her classroom about Sudan and Darfur. I’ve been to a couple choir concerts at my old school and I think I walked the halls once just to reminisce. That was a bizarre experience I don’t care to repeat–mostly  because high school itself was a bizarre experience. It was full of laughter and chaos. There were mission trips, retreats and friendships that I thought would last forever. But there were some rough low times of displacement, misunderstanding and serious pain. It was a confusing adventure. When I graduated, I swore I was never coming back. Not to high school, not to Littleton, not even to Colorado. I applied only to out of state universities and I had a plan for leaving the country.

Ironically, I’m back in Colorado, attending the only grad school program I applied to when I put my sights on those three little letters: P.h.D.

And, on Wednesday, I went back to high school.

Youth Group.

I was terrified. I had two presentations at school that day, in front of peers and many lettered professors. But nothing prepared me for the moment I entered the parking lot of my old church and realized what I had committed to. There were girls in denim shorts putting face paint on to match their tyedye shirts.* The boys were taller than me and everyone had more make up on than I’ve owned in my entire life. I was wearing chacos and a sweater; I’m very Coloradoan in that I wear chacos with everything, regardless of matching.

I could tell you about the entire night: the amazing scavenger hunt, the fact that I indirectly encouraged cheating,** or that I had two girls hug me before the night was over. But what I really want to tell you isn’t that my team won or that I somehow ended up on leadership for the “cool group,” with the one person that I worried about being on staff with.*** What I want to tell you is that as I watched those kids running around like madmen scavenging pop tart flavors for their lives, and as I watched some of them hang back for a wide variety of all too obvious reasons, I knew that this is where I was supposed to be. I never dreamed of serving at youth group. But not only did I come out of Wednesday night alive, I came out filled with energy and thrilled at the prospect of this school year.

I’m terrified still. But I’m also really excited to love some girls, give them big hugs every week and tell them that Abba loves them more than we could ever imagine. I’m excited for their stories, their redemption, their dreams and their futures. And I’m really excited that for a short time, I get to be a part of their lives.

hopefully, I don’t encourage too much cheating…

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*the first night is a kick-off with colour coded teams and an immense scavenger hunt through the city
**of course I encouraged cheating! when one student looked wary of how they were getting through the obstacle course I pointed out that the judge hadn’t specifically said they couldn’t do what they were doing, so it couldn’t really be wrong. I just wanted us to win!! (and the youth group pastor’s wife smiled teasingly as she said “I like the way you think!”)
***it will be a good lesson in patience and growth to work with said individual. I’m actually excited about the chance to serve with them and eventually even grow to love them. apparently, I’m not just at youth group to work with kids. I’m also there to get some work done myself.