Friday, August 18, 2017

Reclaiming Creativity in Christianity

I've been working through the latest IF:Equip study, Reflections of God: The Theology of Beauty. There have been lots of moments where I've felt like it has totally given me a huge kick in the seat. But today as I was working through some different topics on the arts it struck me just how much the Christian faith should not be boring.

I think if we're honest, we would each admit that there was at least one thing about being a Christian or about going to church that seemed boring at one point in time. It might have been the repetition and routine nature of a Sunday morning service (stand up, sit down, stand up...), or the endless silence associated with a time of prayer and Bible reading, or the exhausting language of whatever version you were reading ("thee before thou except after thine"), or a pastor's sermon that was impossible to follow and felt like it would never end.

I've been there for all of those things, and while I've tried to find the value in the midst of the seemingly mundane, sometimes it can be really hard not to check out. It can be even more hard to not view God as equally boring. After all, isn't the Christian life and church supposed to be a reflection of God? For many people, their first experience might just be that dry, routine church service, and they might think that's all there is to having a relationship with God. They might think that's all He is, a boring, routine being who speaks in old English and sits in silence.

I have loved the Reflections of God study because it has challenged this stereotypical view of God and our response to Him. And to be honest, I don't think He enjoys the boring and monotonous experience any more than we do. Certainly He desires our attention and worship, but I don't think He wants it to come from a place of stale monotony and obligation. None of us would want to be "loved" in that way, so why would God?

The first thing we learn about God is that He created. He is Creator. And He didn't create with just one color or sound or shape. He made tiny, minute animals alongside the vastness of the cosmos. He made humanity through a creative process of shaping dirt and bone to make male and female. He made an array of flavors and a tongue that could taste them. He made endless textures and the sense of touch to feel them. He spoke and with His voice He made the orchestra of sounds that fill our planet. And best of all, He made us in His image, so that we could create things too.

I look outside my window, and I see a world that is anything but boring, made by a Being who could never be boring. And yet, often times in the church and in our own lives, that is how we respond to Him. Perhaps we think that's what reverence is, a quiet, routine form of worship in which we endeavor to focus on Him alone. And there is nothing wrong with quiet or routine rhythms. But I think we do God, and worship, a disservice when we dumb it down, make it monotonous or boring, colorless or stale.

I think God wants to be worshiped in our creativity as well as our silence. He wants us to use our creative capacity to draw hearts to Him, to display His image, to worship passionately, both corporately and on our own. God wants all of us, and He wants us to tap into all that He has made us to be. We can sing and speak, move and dance, make art and music, design and illuminate, write hymns and stories, create delicious foods, grow flowers and plants, teach and train others, all for His glory.

Friends, let's change the stigma of Christianity as boring. Let's leave behind the colorless, lifeless, and the mundane for the colorful, creative, and beautiful. Let's tap into all that we can do and make to bring glory to the One who made us in His image and called us very good. Let us become the catalyst for change in how the world sees and understands the Gospel, the church, and the Christian life.
"Creativity is not an end in itself. Creativity is a means to achieving something better, something more salutary, productive, or beautiful. It exists for improvement, not impression... The gift is given for a purpose: The chief end of man is to glorify God, not man.

"Work has a duel purpose: to continue the process of creation and to counter the consequences of sin. The way you think about God influences the way you think about yourself. Thus we will be Godlike in our work if we recognize it as an assignment from Him... Creative behavior begins in the brain of a thinking individual with a desire to cause constructive change." - Howard Hendricks

Friday, July 7, 2017

Finding Grace

I can't lie--this season of life has been so hard. I've spent a lot of time, too much time, being angry. And now that the tides have begun to change, I find myself living in the aftermath. I thought I would feel relieved on this side of things, but I feel broken.

In this brokenness I see the wrongs that have been committed and I am forced to face them. And the more I look at the wrongs I feel have been done to me, I see the wrongs that have been done by me. I am forced to confront everything I believe about grace.

If you asked me what I believe about grace, I would tell you it's from Jesus, and it's for everyone. It doesn't matter what you've done, how far you've fallen, where you've gone wrong. Grace is offered freely. "Indeed we have all received grace after grace from His fullness, for the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (John 1:16-17) Grace through faith in Jesus saves us (Ephesians 2:8-9), I believe that with all that I am.

I believe that it is grace that empowers us beyond ourselves. It allows us to be used by God, even in the midst of our mistakes and sinfulness. It redeems us and draws us out of every pit we dig for ourselves. Grace surpasses every wrong we could commit. And grace motivates us to live like what we truly are--redeemed, forgiven, free.

But even with this grace so free, I see the ways we all struggle to give it away, whether to ourselves or to others. Somewhere in the midst of the wrong and the pain, we feel we have a right, a responsibility, to hold onto the wrongs committed. It doesn't really matter who committed them, withholding grace from ourselves or others is always the same--it's debilitating, and it's not our job.

"For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring you to God" (1Peter 3:18a). Jesus has already paid for every wrong, He did that at the cross, giving us the ultimate gift of grace and buying our freedom. "Therefore, if the Son sets you free, you really will be free." (John 8:36) In this world starving for grace, it is a mistake to withhold the greatest gift we have been given, even to withhold it from ourselves.

I want grace in my life, every day. I haven't been perfect. I've made more mistakes than I can remember and I know on my own, I can't do anything good. But I also know that I can't be willing to offer myself grace and not offer it to others. I know that I believe grace and Jesus are available to all, and I can't stop sharing that.

This season of life has been hard, but it has also forged a new understanding of grace. I am thankful for it and pray that I will carry it with me always, giving grace freely as long as I live.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Get Off the Fence: Why Students Need You Now

I started volunteering in high school ministry because of the leaders I didn't have. As a high school student, I couldn't help but notice the lack of interest in the youth group, particularly from the older generation. I remember feeling like people were scared of us, and wishing that more people cared. As a senior, I started helping to plan and run events, and when our youth pastor left, it cemented the realization that students desperately need leaders to show up consistently.

Over the past decade, I've made it a goal not just to be a volunteer leader, but to encourage others to volunteer or continue volunteering. It's not without its challenges, but working in student ministry is always, always worth it. If you're on the fence about it, here are three key components to consider.

Show students that they matter

One of the biggest things volunteer leaders can do every week is often the simplest: just show up. Setting aside time from your life and schedule, arriving consistently and on time, and being present communicates something. It shows students that they are important, valuable, and that they matter. It shows that you are willing to invest the precious resource of your time into their lives.

No, you won't always hear people saying thank you, but over time, you will build something meaningful with your students. You will build reliability, and will show that you care. You will provide stability, and show that you are available, whenever your students need you.

These students, the next generation, they're not going to become the church once they reach adulthood. They are the church now. Students need to know that they are important co-laborers in the work that God is doing, and they need to know that they have a place. Consistent leadership helps reinforce their importance and their value.

Teach the truth

Students learn from a multitude of channels--their school, their parents, their friends, social media, and countless external sources. These channels can reinforce and teach the truth, or they can spin a tangled web of lies that can be overwhelming and impossible to navigate alone. Without a foundation of biblical truth, how can we expect students to determine what is true and what is not?

As a volunteer leader, you have an enormous opportunity and responsibility to guide students to the truth. And unfortunately, you can't always rely on other channels. Sometimes youth group is the only place where students will hear the truth about God, humanity, and our desperate need for Jesus. And sometimes, you may be the only person speaking truth into their life. It may seem daunting, but when faced with the reality of life apart from God, the work is well worth it.

Create a legacy

As members of the church, we walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before us. The decisions and actions of older generations will always affect those who follow. As leaders within the church today, now is our time to decide what we will leave behind.

Will our season of church leadership be celebrated or mourned? Will we be known for how we led with godliness and truth, or for how we kept silent? Will we be remembered for uplifting the youth of our congregations, or will we be responsible for the loss of an entire generation within the church? It's our decision to make, but each of us will leave behind a legacy.

As a volunteer leader and member of the church body, you are actively creating a legacy for your students and the generations that follow. This is your opportunity to contribute to the history of the church, to build up the body, and to set an example for the students you lead.

Consider this your invitation to get off the fence, care for students, teach biblical truth, and create a lasting legacy.

Monday, June 5, 2017

I'll Always Thank God for Iowa

Life is changing once again, in beautiful, painful, unignorable ways. I've come to learn that is how God works--He works in unexpected ways, in ways I often don't like, to move me to places I need to be. I think He does this because He knows I won't move on my own. Not without the slamming of doors, not without me kicking and screaming. Not until I realize that this is the only way.

God has taken me many places; I call it the nomad life. I don't think it's a life I would've chosen on my own, but the more I live it, the more thankful I am for it. It has brought me to more places and people than I ever would've known possible. It catches me off-guard at times, when I realize how spectacular it is to be in a place I never knew existed, colliding with the lives of people who never knew I existed.

The beauty of the nomad life exists in its painfulness--it is a kind of death that brings a new life. Something must end for something new to begin. I must leave behind people and places I have come to love in order to discover what awaits. As my time in Iowa ends, I can't help but reflect on this piece of my journey.

I tried everything not to live in Iowa. My family moved there, to Clinton, while I was in college. My first experiences of the state were on short visits and holiday breaks. After college, I tried to stay in Chicago, but cost of living quickly closed that door. Less than a year later, I tried to escape to Colorado and an idealized relationship. A year and a half later, dead ends, poor choices, and job loss left me with one alternative: return to Iowa.

Iowa became the place I called home for the next six years. It was undoubtedly a struggle at times, trying to find my place in a culture I couldn't relate to. I hadn't grown up in the Midwest, or lived on a farm, or even lived in a small town. But I met so many amazing people who became like family, who welcomed me in, and made Iowa my home.

My first Iowa family will always be the people of Clinton, particularly those from my church. They supported me through unemployment, the death of both of my grandfathers, my work at the Clinton Herald and my side photography business, my marriage to Nick, and our move to Iowa City. They opened their homes and their lives to a pastor's kid from Texas and made me part of the family.

The youth group in Clinton also helped solidify my love for youth ministry by allowing me to be a small group leader and occasional teacher. I will never forget those first students I was privileged to work with and know. It was truly an amazing experience to watch them grow up through the program, and to now see them as successful adults.

My second Iowa family has been forged through the past (almost) four years, after Nick and I relocated to the Iowa City area. Once again, a group of wonderful people welcomed us, made us feel at home, and gave us a family. We grew close to peers in our church, and the awesome group of young people who made up the youth group. Later, I would get an even bigger family through my job as I got to know and work with some of the best co-workers I've had.

I never could have guessed the bonds that would be born out of this family, a family that walked with us through many highs and lows. We have mourned together as we have experienced loss in many forms, and rejoiced at triumphs and answered prayers. We have journeyed to other states and countries, and cried on each others' couches. We've shared countless laughs and cups of coffee. We've challenged each other to grow, and shown up in the darkest of hours.

I will always thank God for bringing me to Iowa and giving me the family I found here. I wouldn't be who I am today without each person who became a brother or sister, grandparent, or child. And though God may be leading me elsewhere, I will carry my Iowa family in my heart, wherever the road may lead.
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