Nassau '09 – All Saints Camp – Post 2

Yesterday I wrote a lengthy post of our time in Nassau. Today I find myself thinking of how we got there. I keep finding the beginning of this story fascinating because so many things in life seem rather arbitrary. Don’t read that as “random” but “arbitrary”.  Yes, I try to be live my life led by the Holy Spirit but not being a subscriber of the “every moment of your life is foreordained because it has a reason so just set the soul on Christ-control so God can be sovereign and glorified”, I find myself reflecting on the roads taken and untaken.

In some ways, this story begins at Youth Specialties’ National Youth Workers Conference (NYWC).  Most years, I attend this and among the great speakers and seminars found at this event is the Exhibition Hall. There was a time when I didn’t appreciate it because I found too many lame booths and I’m snobby to that sort of thing (but don’t be upset with me, it’s how the good Lord ordained it). Maybe I matured a little, maybe the booths got better but all I know is that this place became an excellent place to find mission trip organizations and so for the last few years I found our trip there. That’s not to say that they were all good organizations (I believe one is being run by the devil disguised as southern baptists) but you leave a time and place like that with better insight than clicking through sites and reading through brochures.  Among the speakers, seminars, music and their new format, you should add this reason and go.  If it weren’t for our new baby coming this fall, I’d be there.

This past November at YS Pittsburgh (the best one I’d been to by the way), I met one of the founders of Next Step Ministries – Nick Cocalis. He said they were a new ministry, born out of their youth ministry that now had 4 sites, the newest was their greatest need – Nassau. I told him that it was going to be tough for me to fundraise for the Bahamas as I already have a few church-goers that are suspicious of my “glamorous lifestyle”. He continued by explaining it was an AIDS Camp that had been neglected for years and they needed a lot of help. We talked more and I walked away thinking something like, “Wouldn’t it be great if we did something like that?”

After returning home, I remember sitting in my office filing some of the brochures  and creating a “Top-5”. There are many solid missions organizations, numerous  excellent causes, and I believe that God is at work in most of them. But for me,      the AIDS pandemic kept me focused on Next Step. It seemed to me that whenever  we talk about AIDS, we think about Africa, and whenever we talk about places like  the Bahamas, we talk about vacation. So to put it crudely, you are even less  fortunate to get HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean then you are in Africa.

There are statistics that reveal there are about 22 million people who suffer from HIV in Africa while there are approximately 250 thousand that have the HIV virus in the Caribbean area. It seemed clear that we weren’t going to Africa this year and slowly and slowly, the Next Step AIDS Camp opportunity seemed clearer. More confirming to me was how underwhelming that statistic seemed.  Meaning most would feel that statistic is not impressive enough in a tragic sort of way because the number isn’t bigenough.  But even if it wasn’t, to me it was another group of people that represented the “least of these”.  But here’s the other thing, the number proportionately is huge!  The Caribbean is the second-most affected region in the world while sub-Sahara Africa is the first.

Here’s the perspective that made sense to me.  I live in Bergen County, NJ which has a population of about 90,000 people which is about 3 times the population of the Bahamas.  My county reports about 3000 HIV cases (in 2007) while the Bahamas reports a little over 6000 cases.  So the Bahamas has a third of my county’s population but twice as many cases.

To be honest, I didn’t have any cut-off numbers as l mentioned some of this is arbitrary and stats are not always the best way to determine the legitimacy of a cause.   What they did for us was provide context and perspective.  Further it was helpful for me to those that speak in the language of stats and figures.  Anyway, this is part of what I shared with those around me and then to our sr. high group and eventually to the church.  Most people got it, supported it, and loved it.  Today, I find myself so grateful to how this all came to be.

If you are interested, you can get started here at Next Step’s intro page for the All Saints AIDS Camp.

Nassau’09 – All Saints AIDS Camp – Post 1

Last Thursday, we returned from our mission trip to Nassau, Bahamas and here’s my attempt to try to summarize.  Being a pastor, I am prone to exaggeration but as sincere as I can be, it was a truly an amazing experience. Having had great mission experiences to places like the Czech Republic, New Orleans, Estonia, the “amazing-ness” of this experience came a bit unexpected to me because to get to the point, if you leave for a mission trip wanting to serve and share with others and you have realistic expectations, you generally have a great experience.

It’s on these trips that we are able to detach ourselves from our private self-serving worlds, bond with those we came with, love our new friends and take part in the Mission. Many times, the destination of the place and the particular mission actually become secondary because the beauty of the time is found in serving the Kingdom in a humble, loving Christ-like way. And for many of us, this is unfortunately too rare of an occurrence (I have more to say on that but this post will be long enough as it is).

Maybe what was so unique about this experience was so many  incredible aspects coming together. We attended YS’s DCLA (post  coming one day) from Friday-Monday (July 10-13) and our students  loved it. We spent the remainder of Monday sightseeing and woke up  early Tuesday and flew out of Reagan International. Generally after  you  attend a big conference event you want to go to do some thing  instead  of returning home, so for us, this worked well.

Our trip was to do some construction work at the All Saints AIDS  Camp. All Saints literally started as a leper colony that eventually became a refuge to those with HIV/AIDS who had no other place to go. Among the most surprising aspects of our time there was for a place that had to deal with the passing of their residents, death seemed like a distant topic to them. In fact, I had to remind myself of this terrible reality throughout the week. More of the focus was on being intentional with the time and opportunities that we had left. This made construction on these new cabins and paving a new sidewalk not only more tolerable but important.

Let’s be clear here, the work sucked. It was extremely hot, (90’s for the first few days we arrived), and extremely humid. Then there was the fact that I never learned how to mix cement by hand in my honors classes in high school and neither did my students. We were broken up in two groups, one for the new cabins and the other for the sidewalk. I learned that I’m better with a power saw than I am with a hammer and nails. I also found a place to vent my frustration with parents who pick up their kids late from activities and those that Google criticism of the emergent church as opposed to reading the actual books for themselves. That place is breaking up old sidewalk with a sledge hammer. Indeed it was good therapy and I’ve returned to Jersey in search of sidewalks that I can … uhh … nevermind.

Anyway, the work was tough on our students but they held it together. One girl admitted that she despised the type of work she was made to do. That was until she met a lady at the camp and saw how hard it was for her to walk down the sidewalk. She said, she really needed to talk to her and then to see it because her attitude completely changed.

We had a great team of students that got along great with each other which is  hard  to do when you’ve been together for 2 weeks, exhausted, hungry, and  feeling  disgusting most of the time. There was no need to discipline anyone  which  allowed me to take on a different role than I normally get to do – a  friend. Our  leaders did a great job as well. Then there was our new friends from  Next Step.

The Next Step team was absolutely amazing for us. Andy was the site manager of  Nassau who carried so much responsibility but didn’t let it bog him down. He was  very sensitive to our needs and changes of plans. Having just completed law  school, I found it to be an odd thing for a him to be working at an AIDS  Camp. A  Further, he seemed to be a truthful person (perhaps that didn’t help in law school  but he’s an amazing person). There was Dennis who was in charge  of construction and he’s good at it. I couldn’t believe how patient he was with all of us. As a team we always found creative ways to make his work harder but he never got annoyed with us. Sonja was the worship leader/speaker for the week. She did a great job leading and speaking each night and most days she was out mixing cement with us. I look forward to seeing her speak at a YS event one day. Last but certainly not least was Jessica. I forget what Jessica’s job was supposed to be because she did just about everything. She cooked, did construction, joked around, visited the residents with us, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she was the one who moved the clouds the one day we got off to a rainy start. What’s interesting is that they each grew up in different parts of the world, Mexico, Australia, Nicaragua, and … Wisconsin. We all felt that we made new friends this week.

The most moving part of our week was spending time with the residents of the AIDS Camp. Many of them had committed their lives to Christ some time ago and had some sense of joy. We were all moved by a woman named Moxy whose body was clearly failing but whose spirit was so alive. Then there was brother Vince who lost his eye sight while serving in prison but was committing Scripture to memory by listening to cds. He used to be a tour guide on the island and one of the most beautiful moments that none of us will ever forget was when we picked him up on our free day and asked him to give us a tour of the island. They told him where he was and then he would start the tour. It was unbelievable.

There were a lot of other beautiful moments as well, from how we handled disagreements to the children’s worship service we did at the Children’s Emergency Hostile. Throughout our time, we painted nails, handed out flip-flops and toiletries we had collected from back home and in short, learned to get over ourselves. It’s a hard lesson to bring back on the plane but I was encouraged by how much our students grappled with the life they wanted to live and the life they had. Life in the Kingdom of Jesus is not easy and I believe this week, the window opened a little wider for us to see and experience it.

Poets, Prophets, & Preachers Conference – “The Original Guerilla Theater” – Rob Bell #ppp09 – Post 1

The Original Guerilla Theater – from the brochure – “Throwing ourselves into this ancient sacred art form with the absurd, naïve, antiquated belief that the world needs inspiring, proactive, comforting, dangerous healing, great sermons now more than ever.”

Here are some of the notes I took and my interpretation of what I think I was said. They made subtle point that they didn’t want open laptops or phones on during the sessions.  So no twittering.  Similar to the Q Conference, I understand that they want you to be here and be conscious of those who are gathered with you.   I’ll respect it but when I put on my own conference, “Posers, Players, and Punks”, I’ll let whoever do whatever they want.  Anyway, they say that they will release video of this one day but in the meantime you’ll have to deal with my subjectivity until you’re able to have your own:

Rob came out and gave one of the best introductions that I think could be given when talking about preaching sermons to today’s culture. He first started by telling a hilarious story of one of his first sermons. I can’t take the time to retell it but it made me feel better.

“Why do we do this to ourselves?”

As the world gets more “tweeterized” and we continue to go to virtual church, etc. The idea of actual people going to an actual place with the other actual people to hear an actual person in actual real time … the sermon will be more important. It will matter that we were there.

If you were to ask the average person on the average street and you asked them what do you think of when you hear the word “sermon”, what would they say? Would they say stimulating, intelligent, provocative, life-changing, …?

The average person sees the sermon today as something to be endured. It raises the question, “When is lunch?”

For some it is to be evaluated, “Did you like it?”, “Did they do a good job?” As the preacher, you want to interrupt one of these conversations and say, “How did you do?”

Imagine Marin Luther King giving his “I Have a Dream” speech and afterwards people saying, “Did you like it?” “Yeah but he went a little long and I heard some of those stories before.”

To some it’s pure propaganda. It serves to tell people what they already know, and assure them that their way is the only way. It has no exploration, no discovery, no movement. Sometimes it exists for a building project. The sermon isn’t about that directly but everybody in the entire place knows what it’s about. Some non-Christians are particularly sensitive to this while many long time Christians cannot detect it.

Sometimes after a sermon you feel:

“Have you heard anything I said?” The scary thing is when you understand that a family/person who has been in your church for years has not understood some basic re-occurring themes you’ve been stressed over and over.

“Crickets” vs. “That was the most amazing thing I have ever heard”
There are some days you can’t wait to give this message, it’s your best stuff, it will blow people away. It’s like a grenade and you’re going to pull the pin and drop it in there and watch …. But no one responds or if they do, the response is a bored negativity (not even offended by the boldness of it). Then there are days when you don’t got it. It’s been one of those weeks, and you crawl into the pulpit with this pathetic sermon that you duct-taped wings to and people come back and say, “That was amazing!!!” and now you feel even worse.

“That sermon sounded like the old _____” “Can’t we go back to _______”
If you listen to the Mars Hill podcasts this is something that Rob has tried to subtly and at at times not so subtly correct. For years, he’s heard this, “That sounded like the old Rob” Can’t we do Leviticus again (and feel that way again)?” You can’t go back to the person you were because we are all becoming something different.

The picture to the right is a quote of collected words of advice to every pastor. It was something like – “The preacher should be honest and transparent.  He should use the Bible but not too much but it should be practical and it should be funny too but not too funny because you’re a pastor not a comedian but you should tell lots of stories but not too many because that gets old too.  You should use personal illustrations like about your family but try to be creepy about it, and you should admit your faults but not too many because that’s depressing but you really should be open and honest …”

He used some biblical illustrations like Ezekiel 4

The preacher and his sermon have a bit of:
Performance Art – We can’t deny that this is an element of our preaching.
Guerilla Theater – you come on the platform, give your message, then you’re gone, and people are like, “Wow, what just happened? Where did he go?”
Actions that Evoke – Sometimes unintended actions are evoked.
Just like Ezekiel

Acts 4 – “They were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus”

We are witnesses

We sometimes give the reminder that this isn’t what God has in mind

Mark 1:15

Is 52
Sometimes the sermon is a sub-story – there’s another story.

Luke 4 – they try to kill Jesus. At least most of our congregations have tried that.

Sermons have:
Loaded Language

Acts 17 – a missed response comes your way. Some people are skeptical, some are moved.

“And God said …”
“Words create new worlds”
Words need to be given flesh …
Rob believes that they have a power – “Talks start talks”
Many are conditioned in thinking that the preacher has the last word, maybe it’s just the first word.

Thoughts – Rob Bell comes out in his standard uniform, black on black, cool glasses and shoes that say, “Why do people only talk about my glasses; my shoes are cool too.” He’s sorta like a Johnny Cash meets an older Michael Cera, except Rob is actually funny. He’s brilliant too. I actually think Rob understands the way I feel. His assistants that do all this research for him are amazing.  Like am I really expected to believe that he understands the preacher hang-over?  He quotes my inner monologues like, “Have you heard anything I said?” and quotes listeners, “Did you like it? Yeah, he’s getting better. He’s kinda funny but he talks too fast some times so let’s go to Panera Bread and cut off every driver from here to there.”

Seriously, I think why so many connect with him is because he is a great communicator and he is in touch with how people feel.  And I suspect part of the reason is that he is in touch with how he actually feels.  it seemed to me that everyone in the room was feeling very similar things.  It was a solid first session and I am looking forward to more.

Monday Morning Brief – July 6, 2009

(sorry my links seem to not be working).

What’s going on – Susan and I drove out to Grand Rapids (“the epicenter of progressive culture”) to attend the Poets, Prophets, & Preachers Conference. It’s about reclaiming the art of the sermon. We decided this was a great chance for us to get away as a couple. Susan’s parents were wonderful enough to fly up from FL to watch Nathan. We stopped for the night in Cleveland, visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which is very cool if you are ever nearby). Hit the road, arrived in time to watch the fireworks in Grand Rapids, worshipped at Mars Hill, Shane Hipps preached the first part of a two week series on fasting. He began by talking about “feasting”. You can stream the audio here or subscribe to their sermon podcast via iTunes.

What I Enjoyed this Week – 1. Aside from the aforementioned, our VBS went really well. Grateful for all of our volunteers, grateful for all the kids who came, loved that we raised over $1000 for the “Shoe Me” Project (every $10 gets a pair of shoes to children in the Congo). We have a lot of follow up and and other children’s ministry needs but this was a good week. 2. Liked that our church allows us to get away. 3. While I am critical of those that confuse patriotism and Christianity, I am grateful to be an American. Hoping to do my share in being a part of a better world and a better nation while pledging my allegiance to the kingdom of Christ. 4. I enjoyed Transformers 2. Much better than what people said. Hey, it’s a movie about shape changing alien robots, it’s not supposed to be Shakespeare. If you liked the first one, I think you’ll like the second. Indeed such a movie does not need profanity, crude humor, or sexual gratuity, but if you’ve been a movie-goer for the last 20 years, you shouldn’t be surprised. 5. Grateful that one of our youth leaders arrived home safely from Honduras.  Hope she doesn’t bring the same “luck” on our mission trip. All I know is that she entered the country when it was peaceful and left it in shambles.  ;-)

What I Didn’t Enjoy – 1. The Iranian government (or Ayatollah or the “Guardian Council”) saying, “Yeah we re-checked the votes, we were right the first time, Ahmadinejad won by 62%.”  I am admiring, praying and rooting for Moussavi and his plan for a new party.  He’s among the bravest in the world right now.  2. The Iranian govt, arresting British embassy workers. 3. While I am moved by the death of Michael Jackson, I can’t handle the 24-7 coverage and the constant biopic.

What I Couldn’t Care Less About – Bruno and those that are offended by it. Forget the boycotts, forget creating controversy for it, just ignore it. It’s about as appealing to me as the next Left Behind again and again book.

What’s Going on in our Student Ministry – We will be headed out for our mission trip this week.  First, we will be attending the YS DC/LA Conference in Washington (Friday) then headed out to Nassau Bahamas to help rebuild cabins at the All Saints AIDS Camp. Please pray for those that we will be serving, serving with, our safety, etc. May our hearts be humble and committed to the extra mile.

What if Michael Jackson Was an Iranian?

It’s the second week of the “aftermath” of the death of Michael Jackson. Similar to the Anna Nicole saga, you get more and more disturbed of the details that are uncovered. Of course, part of this is the job of television, to take something, twist it enough to make you say, “Wow, that’s unbelievable! That’s crazy!” In fact, every time we get into one of these around the clock coverage breaking news obsession times, I think of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. He argues that the news does not serve to inform us but to entertain us long enough to pay attention to their sponsors. He says a bit more but that’s the one sentence executive summary (*wink* at Biblical Seminary people).

Some of my friends and I have lamented that since Jackson died, Iran has gone missing.  Maybe it has all been resolved or perhaps they were so moved by the King of Pop’s untimely death that their hearts were so broken that they mutually decided to set aside their differences and mourn with the rest of the world and continue discussion at a later time. In a united statement both “president” Ahmadinejad and the protesters said “In light of recent events in the entertainment world, we would like to take the focus off of ourselves and allow all of our attention to be focused on Michael Jackson.”

God only knows what is actually happening there. May He be near.

This leads me to wondering a few things.

What if Michael Jackson was an Iranian? My tongue-in-cheek argument is that regardless of nationality or language, Jackson would have been a super-star regardless where he was born. Just as the moon is universal so is the “moonwalk”. Second, what if an Iranian-born Michael had been killed as part of the Iranian conflict? The world would be in shock! I really wonder what would have happened next. Third, this crisis is prompting me to consider paying more attention to international artists. I know it’s cool to like international music, I’m just not into it. Aside from U2, Radiohead and Coldplay, and the euro-trash bands that emulate them, I never had the motivation. I have enough trouble keeping up with genres that I already like. But here’s my real point, if we are frustrated by our news outlets, perhaps we should consider artists. I know language would be an initial problem but the world is getting flatter, we could probably find out and get whatever we wanted.

If Jackson was Iranian, not only might we as Americans have liked him more, we might also care more about the injustices surrounding him. I wonder what else would be different today.

Are you 30ish and remember the first time you saw the video “Thriller”?

My earliest Michael Jackson memories include the Thriller video, him being on the cover “Weekly Reader” when I was in second grade and answering my friend’s question, “Why does he only wear one white glove”. (I think the answer I gave was, “Because that’s what he wears in the “video” which were pretty new back then). If you can imagine, in the early 80’s not everyone had cable television and access to MTV (nor were there things like remote controls). Anyway, Jackson was the first super-star that I came to know. He would be followed by Hulk Hogan, Mr. T, Sylvester Stallone, & Optimus Prime.

Yeah, the pet tigers were weird and so was that glass oxygen chamber he supposedly slept in but that didn’t stop me from putting quarters into the “Smooth Criminal” arcade game (still my favorite Jackson song). It wasn’t until he released the Black or White album, that I started getting bored with him. It wasn’t that Black or White was that bad, but there was Pearl Jam and Nirvana (in that order) that were much cooler and more interesting. But even grunge and flannel couldn’t compare to the eye-candy video of “Black or White”. (It was one the one with everybody morphing into each other and it was the same technology used in Terminator 2). Besides, whose against racial reconciliation?

There were two other (admittedly minor) things that annoyed me about Michael Jackson. One was that I was a bigger Michael Jordan fan and I acknowledged him as the true “Michael” or “MJ”. Second was the extremely long video of “Remember the Time”. It was a video of him and his love running around ancient Egypt. Being Egyptian, I got annoyed by the cheesiness of the video (but I do like that Bangles, “Walk Like an Egyptian”).

Jackson grew weirder and while I had grown up (a little), it seemed he never did. I know growing up with Joe Jackson as your father probably didn’t help nor did being a child super star help your adolescence. As he grew older, there were the weird marriages, the continued skin lightening, the nose jobs, the scandals, and there wasn’t any amazing music to justify the weird and perverse behavior. In the world of Rock’n Roll, that means you’re finished.

But finished only to people like me because a significant part of the rest of the world was still in love with him. During our mission trip to Estonia in 2004, we were asked over and over how Michael could be accused of such terrible crimes. I remember speaking to a young adult there and she was absolutely crushed when I told her that many of us in the West see him as deranged. 40 year old men don’t share beds with 12 year olds. It was a losing argument for me.

Fast forward to last week. I read the twitter updates that said he was being rushed to the hospital due to a cardiac arrest, I went to the gym, came home and Susan told me that he died.

All week all the FM stations played his music. You could start “Billy Jean” on one station and finish it on another. On my way to school last week, I was rudely cut off by a BMW 750 owner. Normally I would have pulled out my bazooka and sent him into oblivion but I was listening to “Man in the Mirror” and thought, “If I want to make the world a better place, take a look at myself and make a … change.”

I’m really trying to say something redemptive here but it fails. Though I literally own zero Jackson cd’s (I did own all his cassettes from Thriller to Black & White however), I admit, I was a bit saddened. There was a part of me that always justified the extremely odd behavior brought upon my numerous reasons like being a world-famous celebrity and being called, “The King of Pop”. But there was also a part of me that always wanted him to redeem himself. A lot can be said right here but it’s already been a long post. Still, it seems fair to say that this is yet another story that does not end the way we thought it would.