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From Fear to Hope: The Yuck of Youth Ministry

What If We’re Wrong?

One of the most generous, most visionary, most loving, and most successful people I know in ministry has a recurring fear. Every time the ministry is about to launch something, even if it’s just launching the Sunday School year for the hundredth time, she has nightmares that no one will show up. She worries that all of our planning, all of our hard work, all of our faithfulness will be for nothing.

 

The Yuck of YM

I do not think that she’s the only minister to have these fears. And it’s not just a fear of failure or of looming disappointment, though these fears are certainly there. Rather, it’s the fear that, despite our faithfulness, something will go wrong. It’s the fear that, though we have done everything we’re supposed to do, life will intervene or it won’t be enough. It’s the fear that, maybe, just maybe, God isn’t real and God’s promises don’t mean a thing. It’s the fear that God has abandoned us, or, maybe, we’ve abandoned God. Maybe we’re on the wrong path. Maybe what we thought was right, wasn’t. Or maybe we’re inadequate for the task. Maybe what we thought was a call, wasn’t.

But sometimes, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, God is calling us to stay in the messiness of failure, disappointment, inadequacy and the just plain “yuck” of life because in that very “yuck” lies something very, very good.

The truth, of course, is that life does intervene. And sometimes our best efforts are not good enough. That vital volunteer gets sick. A beloved kid who seemed to have everything together overdoses on painkillers. The weather turns ugly on the very day we were going to hold a big outdoor kickoff event.

Stay in ministry long enough—stay alive long enough—and, despite our best efforts, despite our faithfulness, something will go wrong. 

Life’s Surprises…

I imagine this is how Joseph felt when he learned about Mary’s pregnancy. We do not know much about Joseph. In fact, while Mary has a conversation with an angel and sings a prophetic song of redemption, Joseph never says a word.

We mainly know Joseph through his actions and through a brief description of him, here in Matthew 1: “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Because Joseph was faithful to the law. Joseph was faithful. Not only to the law, but also to his soon-to-be wife. He could have shamed her publicly, could have even called for her death by stoning. He would have been within legal rights. But he chose to “divorce her quietly.” Joseph was faithful.

And yet, despite his faithfulness, his soon-to-be wife was pregnant and the child was not his. The dreams he had for their life together were derailed. So he wanted to end it quietly. Walk away and pretend nothing had happened.

…Lead to God’s Deliverance

But God wanted him to go further. God wanted him to stay in the midst of the disappointment, in the midst of the confusion, in the midst of the messiness. God wanted him to trust that, just on the other side of this impossible situation, a hope beyond his imagining was waiting.

Unlike the unexpected birth of Jesus, I do not think that God causes some of these wrong situations. I do not think a young person overdosing is something conceived by the Holy Spirit. I do not think that God puts horrible things in our lives or derails our ministries with failures. But I do believe that God’s promises for hope often come not in spite of, but in the midst of these very wretched situations. And sometimes, it is in these impossibly messy moments that God is, in fact, birthing something new.

God Redeems the Yuck

Sometimes it might be healthy to leave a bad situation, especially if that situation is abusive—for instance, an abusive staff relationship in a church. But sometimes, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, God is calling us to stay in the messiness of failure, disappointment, inadequacy and the just plain “yuck” of life because in that very “yuck” lies something very, very good.

Paul must have experienced this at some point. He writes this to the church in Rome about hope:

“I consider  that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:18–25)

Hope from Within the Yuck

Indeed, we cling to that patience in this Advent season, this season of waiting in which our knowledge of Jesus’ coming in the flesh all those years ago is run ragged through the reality that it’s been two thousand years since he rose and we’re still waiting for everything to be made right. But it is that very enfleshment, that very incarnation, that gives us something Joseph never had.

We know, or at least we deeply desire to believe, that even death cannot contain our God. Even a criminal’s crucifixion could not stop the hope that arrived like a thunderbolt in a clear blue sky in the person of Jesus Christ.  And so with Paul, and with Joseph, we wait, in the midst of the “yuck,” in active hope, and proclaim what we barely dare to trust:

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38–39)


About the Author: Marcus Hong

Marcus Hong

Marcus A. Hong is a child of God. He’s also the Director of Field Education and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a PhD Candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a cultivator of worship who has served in congregations, college chapels, and youth groups for over fifteen years. Marcus loves movies, fantasy literature, poetry and songwriting, and, alongside his brilliant wife Sarah, has his hands blessedly full raising two precocious children.

From Fear to Hope:
Embracing Fear

(Article Originally Posted December 1, 2016)

Fear, Hope, and Politics

Even after our yearly ritual of stuffing our faces and spending tons of money we don’t have on things we don’t need, many are still reeling from one of the most vitriolic political seasons in recent memory. And as we learned from the 2016 campaign season, fear can still weave a powerful and compelling narrative. The politics of fear and othering are still very much alive and well. Hope remains a precious commodity and at times can feel more like blind naiveté than anything else.

From Fear to Hope

But Advent is a season of hope—a season of affirming that God is with us in spite of all evidence to the contrary.  However, this hope can never be divorced from fear. After the election was over and we all knew the results, I saw a swath of posts from people reminding those in shock and fear, “Jesus is still on the throne,” or, “God is still in control.” While I can appreciate the sentiment on some level, it’s insensitive at best, and dismissive of the very real (and I think very justified) fears that many people have following the election.

You may have written off the some of the things that happened during the campaign season as “just talk.” But if you don’t feel that fear right now there’s a good chance you’re not spending time with the right people.

God Chooses Those Who Are Not

While in our election we chose between two absurdly wealthy people hailing from seats of enormous power and influence, in Advent we celebrate God’s choice of an unwed teenager from the backwoods of Galilee to carry God’s own self and continue the story of salvation. Mary was no one important, nor was she of particularly noble stock.[1] When I think of Mary I think of so many kids I’ve met in youth ministry, raised in neighborhoods that feel so devoid of hope.

I think of the girls whose lives changed drastically because they got pregnant in middle or high school. I think of the boys who, in trying to grow up too fast, embraced the toxic cultural narratives of what it means to be a man. I think of one kid in particular (now an adult) whom I used to tutor at an after-school program my wife ran.

I visited him in jail a few weeks ago as he awaits a trial that will likely result in him spending too much of his life in prison. “He was such a good kid,” I repeated to myself, as if ritualizing his goodness and value would somehow transfigure his bleak future. And if I’m being honest, the pessimist in me wonders how many of those kids had any hope to begin with because of the powerfully intersecting systems designed to keep the lowly in their lowly states and the powerful on their thrones.

Be Not Afraid…?

In the midst of my pessimism emerges a messenger from God who brings good news of great joy. The angel greets Mary and, noticing her confusion, offers a word of comfort, “Do not be afraid, Mary.” The angel’s exhortation here feels a bit dismissive—a bit like those “God is still in control” social media posts—especially given the loaded political language of the birth announcement. The angel tells Mary not only that she will bear a son (1:31), but also that he will take up the throne of his ancestor David (1:32), and that he “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end” (1:33). In other words, she has pretty good reason to fear even beyond her angelic visit.

Peace Through Conflict

In the midst of our harmonized and sanitized Christmas pageants we easily overlook just how charged the language is here. It echoes some of what we know about Jewish messianic expectations, especially regarding the restoration of the Davidic throne.[2] The news heralded by the angel is one of an alternative kingdom and a new king who will restore Israel to its former glory . American Christians tend to spiritualize this proclamation, but we shouldn’t lose sight of just how politically loaded it is. The Advent of the one called the Son of God is supposed to signal peace on earth (2:14).

And if we’re still unclear about what this all means, the unwed pregnant teenager parses it for us. The Advent of this child is supposed to signal for us a great upheaval of how we order ourselves and our societies. Mary’s Magnificat (1:46–55) extols God as the one who “has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” (1:48), whose “mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (1:50), who “has scattered the proud” (1:51), “brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (1:52), and who “has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (1:53). Quite simply, if this isn’t our understanding of who God is and what the coming of the Christ child means, we’re doing it wrong.

Hope Meets Us in Fear

Advent is about moving from fear to hope, but notice where the movement begins: fear. You may not understand the fear that some are feeling right now because you don’t belong to a community that has genuine reasons for concern. You may have written off the some of the things that happened during the campaign season as “just talk.” But if you don’t feel that fear right now there’s a good chance you’re not spending time with the right people. The movement from fear to hope means wading through the deep waters of fear to mine for hope, no matter how fragile it might be. It means listening, really listening, to the fear of those relegated to the margins and those for whom rhetoric has already become reality.

I think this Advent season should be an invitation for us to embrace fear rather than simply dismissing it—unless you’re an angel, dismissing people’s fears is not your job. If you don’t feel that fear right now, go find a community that does and spend some time there.  That’s where God is born and hope might be found.

 

Footnotes

[1] However one solves the tensions between Matthew and Luke’s genealogies, Mary is never explicitly connected to the Davidic line in either.

[2] The best scholarly treatment of Jewish messianic expectations during this period is from John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls (2 ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010).


About the Author: Sheldon Steen

sheldon-steen

Sheldon Steen is part-time PC(USA) pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, FL and a full-time PhD student at Florida State University studying Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. He and his wife Mary have been married for over ten years and they have three really, really ridiculously good looking children. In his free time he is a mediocre homebrewer and a professional power napper.

Advent Part four

From Fear to Hope:
Safety Pins, Fearful Kings, and Hopeful Magi

Safety (Pin) from Fear

You might not notice it, but there is a tiny safety pin attached to my shoelace. There is another one on the zipper of my coat, where I hope more people will see it and recognize me as a person who will provide a safe space. I put them there so I don’t have to remember to put one on my shirt every day, where it would get lost in the laundry and where my eight-month-old is likely to try to eat it.

Advent Part Four

I wear these pins for my students because, in light of current events, they are afraid. I wear them as a sign of solidarity with victims of recent hate crimes, and truthfully, because I am afraid of the violence that has taken place in the wake of our recent presidential election. Events at home and abroad are unsettling—and my hunch is that, wherever you and your students stand politically, you share in that fear to some extent. Life can be disturbing, and we do not always know what to do.

Truth be told, the tiny safety pin that I wear on my shoelaces isn’t really for other people—that one is just for me. It reminds me, when that metaphorical rock for a pillow fear keeps me up at night, to keep following the light. Like this story, it reminds me of the truth: that fear belongs to the losing team.

Yet as I approached the story of our Savior’s birth with the theme of “moving from fear to hope” in mind, I had to look for fear in the passage. After all, a bright light shone in the heavens, Scripture was fulfilled, and Jesus was born—hallelujah! Where is the fear in that? After reading this passage several times, I found it. In this story, fear belongs to the bad guy.

Power Leads to Fear

To be honest, I’m not entirely comfortable with the degree to which I understand King Herod. I mean, I get it—he feels threatened by the news that important people want to worship a new king and he doesn’t want to be ousted. Securing power is his instinct.

I’m not a political expert, but I do watch a lot of West Wing and Madam Secretary, which I’m fairly certain qualifies me to assume that Herod’s summons of “all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law” has some political nuances that are not in the text.

He calls in all the important leaders who might have an interest in the situation to assess the threat level and figure out what is exactly at stake. He strategizes to save his own skin—with, as it turns out, a horrendous exertion of power. But because I know the outcome of this story, I am not afraid of Herod; thousands of years later, he just isn’t a threat to me. He did terrible things, and there was danger and death and mourning. Yet I understand that he acted out of fear.

So, I guess there is fear in this story—but it does not belong to me. It is part of a little blurb, in a much larger story, in which God is securing divine power—the power that illuminates our world and brings the hope of salvation and redemption to the world. In this Advent story, fear belongs to the losing team. 

Hopeful Migrants

As I read and re-read this passage, it is the Magi who really have my attention. Fear has no place in their story; they are the ones who point to hope. After a presumably long journey, they arrive in Jerusalem and ask, expectantly, to see the newborn king of the Jews. Not finding him in there, they continue to follow the star with the hope and expectation of reaching him—and I can only pretend to grasp the deep fulfillment and joy they must have felt upon approaching the place where the child was.

Safety Pins

I imagine one interrupting another upon first seeing Jesus, shouting, “There he is, there he is! We made it!” Then all three of them lift their robes and break into a run as they complete the last steps of their pilgrimage, all shouts and smiles as they approach the little guy, their deepest hopes fulfilled.

Trusting Hope

What strikes me is the way that the Magi held hope and confidence together—to have one, they had to demonstrate the other. Their confidence in hoping for the long-awaited King of the Jews foretold in the Scriptures was made tangible in their long journey to Bethlehem and in their obedience to follow the star wherever it led.

I am certain, at some point during their trip, at least one of the Magi had sore feet and that the rock he was using for a pillow caused him to doubt if he should have embarked on this journey to begin with. But confidence in God and their hope that God would send the promised Messiah kept them going and has become an eternal part of Jesus’s entry into the world. Even a warning to avoid Herod on their way home did not deter them. They simply got up, followed God’s word, and took another road home, still trusting that this baby was the hope of salvation for their people. There is a reason we refer to them as wise men.

Exchange Fear for Hope

Truth be told, the tiny safety pin that I wear on my shoelaces isn’t really for other people—that one is just for me. It reminds me, when that metaphorical rock for a pillow fear keeps me up at night, to keep following the light. Like this story, it reminds me of the truth: that fear belongs to the losing team.

This Advent season, may we cast off all fear in the name of hope.  May we anticipate seeing Jesus with the ardent fervor of the Magi, and may hope be an eternal part of our story.


About the Author: Kate Obermueller Unruh

Kate UnruhKate Obermueller Unruh is a Kansas native and forever a Jayhawk at heart. She has more than ten years of experience in youth ministry in various roles, including serving as Assistant Minister at The American Church in London following the completion of an M.Div/M.A. in youth ministry. Kate lives with her architect husband Kyle and their two children in New Jersey, where she is a doctoral candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary.

 

 

Advent Series - Part One

From Fear to Hope:
Embracing Fear
Luke 1.26-56

Fear, Hope, and Politics

Even after our yearly ritual of stuffing our faces and spending tons of money we don’t have on things we don’t need, many are still reeling from one of the most vitriolic political seasons in recent memory. And as we learned this campaign season, fear can still weave a powerful and compelling narrative. The politics of fear and othering are still very much alive and well. Hope remains a precious commodity and at times can feel more like blind naiveté than anything else.

Advent Series Part One

But Advent is a season of hope—a season of affirming that God is with us in spite of all evidence to the contrary.  However, this hope can never be divorced from fear. After the election was over and we all knew the results, I saw a swath of posts from people reminding those in shock and fear, “Jesus is still on the throne,” or, “God is still in control.” While I can appreciate the sentiment on some level, it’s insensitive at best, and dismissive of the very real (and I think very justified) fears that many people have following the election.

You may have written off the some of the things that happened during the campaign season as “just talk.” But if you don’t feel that fear right now there’s a good chance you’re not spending time with the right people.

God Chooses Those Who Are Not

While in our election we chose between two absurdly wealthy people hailing from seats of enormous power and influence, in Advent we celebrate God’s choice of an unwed teenager from the backwoods of Galilee to carry God’s own self and continue the story of salvation. Mary was no one important, nor was she of particularly noble stock.[1] When I think of Mary I think of so many kids I’ve met in youth ministry, raised in neighborhoods that feel so devoid of hope.

I think of the girls whose lives changed drastically because they got pregnant in middle or high school. I think of the boys who, in trying to grow up too fast, embraced the toxic cultural narratives of what it means to be a man. I think of one kid in particular (now an adult) whom I used to tutor at an after-school program my wife ran.

I visited him in jail a few weeks ago as he awaits a trial that will likely result in him spending too much of his life in prison. “He was such a good kid,” I repeated to myself, as if ritualizing his goodness and value would somehow transfigure his bleak future. And if I’m being honest, the pessimist in me wonders how many of those kids had any hope to begin with because of the powerfully intersecting systems designed to keep the lowly in their lowly states and the powerful on their thrones.

From Fear to Hope

Be Not Afraid…?

In the midst of my pessimism emerges a messenger from God who brings good news of great joy. The angel greets Mary and, noticing her confusion, offers a word of comfort, “Do not be afraid, Mary.” The angel’s exhortation here feels a bit dismissive—a bit like those “God is still in control” social media posts—especially given the loaded political language of the birth announcement. The angel tells Mary not only that she will bear a son (1:31), but also that he will take up the throne of his ancestor David (1:32), and that he “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end” (1:33). In other words, she has pretty good reason to fear even beyond her angelic visit.

Peace Through Conflict

In the midst of our harmonized and sanitized Christmas pageants we easily overlook just how charged the language is here. It echoes some of what we know about Jewish messianic expectations, especially regarding the restoration of the Davidic throne.[2] The news heralded by the angel is one of an alternative kingdom and a new king who will restore Israel to its former glory . American Christians tend to spiritualize this proclamation, but we shouldn’t lose sight of just how politically loaded it is. The Advent of the one called the Son of God is supposed to signal peace on earth (2:14).

And if we’re still unclear about what this all means, the unwed pregnant teenager parses it for us. The Advent of this child is supposed to signal for us a great upheaval of how we order ourselves and our societies. Mary’s Magnificat (1:46–55) extols God as the one who “has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” (1:48), whose “mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (1:50), who “has scattered the proud” (1:51), “brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (1:52), and who “has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (1:53). Quite simply, if this isn’t our understanding of who God is and what the coming of the Christ child means, we’re doing it wrong.

Hope Meets Us in Fear

Advent is about moving from fear to hope, but notice where the movement begins: fear. You may not understand the fear that some are feeling right now because you don’t belong to a community that has genuine reasons for concern. You may have written off the some of the things that happened during the campaign season as “just talk.” But if you don’t feel that fear right now there’s a good chance you’re not spending time with the right people. The movement from fear to hope means wading through the deep waters of fear to mine for hope, no matter how fragile it might be. It means listening, really listening, to the fear of those relegated to the margins and those for whom rhetoric has already become reality.

I think this Advent season should be an invitation for us to embrace fear rather than simply dismissing it—unless you’re an angel, dismissing people’s fears is not your job. If you don’t feel that fear right now, go find a community that does and spend some time there.  That’s where God is born and hope might be found.

 

Footnotes

[1] However one solves the tensions between Matthew and Luke’s genealogies, Mary is never explicitly connected to the Davidic line in either.

[2] The best scholarly treatment of Jewish messianic expectations during this period is from John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls (2 ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010).


About the Author: Sheldon Steen

sheldon-steen

Sheldon Steen is part-time PC(USA) pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, FL and a full-time PhD student at Florida State University studying Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. He and his wife Mary have been married for over ten years and they have three really, really ridiculously good looking children. In his free time he is a mediocre homebrewer and a professional power napper.