Coming Home From Malawi

Hello friends!

Ten days ago, a team of seven students and seven adults left on the trip of a lifetime. We traveled from Pittsburgh to a city called Zomba in Malawi. We had been planning this trip for well over three years, and fundraising for the last couple of months. Our teens did amazing work leading up to the trip, and it came as no shock to anyone that they did great work in Africa itself!

I've spent the morning trying to post everything that we learned from this trip, but I'm coming up severely short in all of my drafts. So while a play by play review of the trip will likely be coming sometime in the future, I thought I'd share a couple of initial thoughts now that we're back in the States to pass the time. What I'm about to do is kind of like trying to fit the ocean in a Dixie cup, but we'll see where it takes us.

1. Don't underestimate youth. 

This has been a staple thought of my ministry from day one, but it was on loud and proud display in Malawi. Too often in our culture, teenagers are looked at as less than capable people, folks who should not be trusted with the hard stuff of life. I think (hope) it comes from a place of care for the youth, that we don't want to over-whelm their already busy plates. But the truth is, at least with the students I work with, they are capable of every challenge that life hands them. Why would we expect anything less of them?

Our kids were amazing on this trip. We told them this about ten gazillion times, but I don't know if our words were capable of expressing what we as adults and leaders were feeling. From big things like sharing testimonies and forming a choir (who knew?) for a church service to small things like not complaining when plans changed and keeping it together when the whole crew was taken over by a food poisoning episode, our kids were up to the challenges Malawi handed them. Frankly, they handled themselves much better than some adults I know would have in the same situations.

We also had the opportunity to meet some amazing students from Zomba CCAP. Culturally, their youth group looks a lot different from ours (you're basically in the youth group until you get married, so there were people as old as 30s and 40s in it), but their ability to rise to the occasion was no less impressive. One of the ministries of Zomba CCAP is their Street Kids Program, which provides lunch and spiritual education to countless homeless children in Zomba. The whole thing is now being run by their youth, and they do it with grace and poise, as if they were made for such a task (spoiler alert: they were). It was a tremendously beautiful thing to see.

So the take home here is that our youth can be trusted with the big things. We can lay upon them the challenges that they're already facing, because for as much as we try to shelter them from the world, they're already a part of it. And truthfully, when you're in the front row watching a group of students rise to the occasion, it may well be the most beautiful thing you'll ever see.

2. 90% of anything is just showing up. 

One of the questions we were asked the most (and the one we had the hardest time answering) was "What are you going to do in Malawi?" It was a fair question before we left, because we had absolutely no idea!

When people think mission trips, they usually think about the kind of hammer and nails building that goes on in a lot of the state-side trips. Either that, or they envision street preaching, passing out tracts and trying to win people to Christ. We knew from the start that this trip wasn't going to be either of those things. So what were our goals? 

Our goals were to broaden our faith and the faith of the folks we met by simply showing up and sharing. This sounds painfully simple, and that's because it is! But the truth is, it's also downright biblical. Acts 2 was lived out in a profound way, as a group from Westminster and a youth group from Zomba CCAP literally shared all things in common. We spent time together. We ate together. We prayed together. We sang together (we did this one a lot). We literally climbed mountains together. And through it all, we grew together. We learned what a dynamic faith in Jesus Christ can look like across cultures and across oceans. And, like watching the kids rise to the challenges put before them, it was an awe-inspiring thing. 

How much of our lives are spent looking for something "big" to do? How often do we feel like we need to write the next book or sing the next song or build the next house to make a difference in someone's life? What if, to truly make a difference, all that's required of us is to show up and let God do his work among us? What if sharing life together would be all we needed? 

3. Always keep a sense of awe.

How could you spend all that time traveling to Africa and not stop along the way to see the awesome animals?

(A better question to ask me would be, how could you know you were going to see the animals and forget to charge your camera battery that day?)

We spent a whole day on Safari in Liwonde national park, and saw all the animals you typically see at the zoo sans cages. We spent the night in an area where you would be kept awake by the snorts and shuffling of hippos (easily the most terrifying part of the trip for me). Crocodiles swam alarmingly close to our boat. And all I could think the entire time was "What an awesome God."

He created the whole world for us, and everything that's in it. I think God takes extreme delight when a group of people hop in a bus, drive around his creation taking pictures and excitedly exclaiming to each other "look at that!" Surely it brings a smile to the Creator's face!

But I wonder if we shouldn't have the same sense of awe when we're driving around Upper Saint Clair as we do when we are lucky enough to find ourselves in the jungle? I wonder if a smile shouldn't be enough to fill us with wonder and amazing me as an elephant's tusks? What would the world look like if we all carried that sense of awe into everything we experienced in God's good world? I'm not sure, but I think it would be a drastically better place.

So those are some initial thoughts. I'll be sharing more, including a bunch of pictures pretty soon. Thanks for your prayers and encouragement on the trip!



Spirituality vs. Religion


I don't know if I can exactly explain it, but there are certain uses for the word "religion" that bother me. I don't know why, but some of these sentences are like fingernails on the blackboard for me. Some examples include:

"What does your religion say about (insert current event here)?"

"My religion teaches (insert scripture passage here)."

"What is your religion?"

It was to that last one that I said a sentence that bothered me at first, but actually I think turns out to have a lot to teach us.

"Christianity is my spirituality, The Pittsburgh Penguins are my religion."

Like I said, at first this idea really bothered me. But after I thought about it a little bit more, it makes all the sense in the world. A religion is a scheduled devotion, you are dedicated to your religion at certain times and at specific places. Each year, when the Penguins announce their season schedule, I grab my calendar and write down every game. If there's a game on a Wednesday (when we have youth group), I will break the land-speed record to get home and see it. Religion is meant to be experienced in a community, and while I will watch a Pens game by myself, there is nothing better than having my living room filled with my closest friends "worshiping" together. Religions tend to have sacred spaces and buildings, and I'll admit that I always stare at the Consol Energy Center for a bit longer than is normal. I even considered making this purchase.

A spirituality however, is much more adapt to answer the questions at the top of the post. A spirituality doesn't come in seasons or on schedules, because a spirituality impacts every once of your life. Every area, every event, every meeting, every workday, and every vacation are impacted by a spirituality. A spirituality doesn't happen in a fixed location. It happens everywhere. It happens in every instance, and it influences every decision. And while community is very important to a spirituality, it's not a limited community. Your spirituality impacts each and every person you come in contact with.

To me, Christianity fits way better into the spirituality category than it does into the religion category. There are religious aspects to a Christian faith, but it's not purely a religion.

As usual, I'd love to hear your thoughts!


Book Review: Falling Upward


Hello again friends!

I just wrapped up the first book from my summer reading list, so I thought I'd share a few thoughts on it here at the J-Blog.

Falling Upward is a challenging book from Richard Rohr. It may have been particularly challenging for me because this is a book all about how to live the second half of life, which is still probably a little ways off for me. But all the same, there were some beautiful and inspiring sections to the book, and I think some great things to think about even as a young person.

One of the thoughts that I appreciated was the notion that a spirituality could actually mature and grow. I think too often we think of our spirituality as a static collection of views or opinions. Rohr points out that as a faith grows, it typically becomes more open and more inclusive in it's thinking, rather than exclusive and "gated". How could this not ring true to the followers of Jesus, who spent his time inviting the very people most thought were on the outside fringes of faith into his inner circle? It makes all the sense in the world to me.

Rohr also spends a small section of the book dealing with Heaven and Hell. Like Rob Bell, he speaks about heaven and hell in ways that make a tremendous amount of sense to me and to many other Christians. "No one is in heaven unless he or she wants to be, and all are in heaven as soon as they live in union. Everyone is in heaven when he or she has plenty of room for communion and no need for exclusion." (Page 119, or at least that's what page my iPad gives for it) This fascinates me that so many people are up in arms over Rob's position, while other Christian leaders have been saying the same sorts of things for quite a long time (Rohr, and most notably in my mind, C.S. Lewis). But, again, that book review is coming.

The central theme of the book resonates for me as well. The idea that our failures and fallings are actually where God does some of his best work in terms of growing us and maturing us is something that I've been working through a lot lately. 2 Corinthians 12:9 says "My grace is sufficient for you, and my power is made perfect in weakness." When we fall, fail, screw up, and get egg on our face, God is right there beside us to show us exactly how powerful his grace really is.

This is an amazing book, though very deep and not the easiest read. I very much recommend it to anyone, but particularly to older readers who are trying to make sense of life in the second half.

Catch ya later!


Jesus is a person.


Greetings friends,

Some follow-up thoughts to yesterday's post. After I wrote it, I spent some time thinking about how we try to pretend that our theology or our doctrinal statement or our denomination is the source of absolute truth, when in fact it's Christ, and Christ alone, who occupies that position in our world. I was thinking about it a bit, and the same sentence kept playing itself over and over and over again in my head.

"Jesus is a person."

A few specific points that need to be mentioned about a sentence like that:

1. Jesus is a person.

One of the things that bothers me more than most is when Christians refer to Jesus as though everything he was happened 2000 years ago. My friends, we do not worship a historical figure. We do not worship a dead man. We worship a LIVING God, a Christ who is as much alive today as he was 2000 years ago, not to mention at the beginning of the world. This is one of the biggest ways the Christian Spirituality separates itself from the other faiths of the world, our God is still with us.

2. People are meant for relationships.

If I approached my relationship with my wife the way some people approach their relationship with Jesus, I doubt very much that we'd still be together! Knowing facts about my wife is not the same as knowing my wife. Having a theology or doctrine statement about Christ isn't the same as having a relationship with Christ.

Don't get me wrong, facts and theology and doctrine are important. I'd be in as much trouble with my wife if I didn't know ANYTHING about her life and world. But if all I have is that framework for understanding a person, then the relationship isn't in fact all that deep.

I think for some of us it's time to stop talking about Jesus and start talking to Jesus. It's time to stop figuring out how Jesus works and start working for him. It's time to treat Jesus less like an idea, and more like a person.

3. Relationships aren't static.

I think one of the ideas that gets us in the most trouble is the concept of Jesus being the same yesterday, today, and forever. It's an absolute true statement, but I think we've forgotten something. We are not the same yesterday, today, or forever! We are static humans, our ideas and opinions and world views and personalities are constantly on the move. So while our savior is always the same, we are not, and so our relationship with him shouldn't stay the same for too too long.

Honestly, it's one of my favorite parts of my faith. It's constantly on the move, Jesus is the same God every day, but the way I approach him and the things I lean on him for and how I respond to him are constantly changing. Some people would have us believe that this is the sign of a weak faith, but I disagree. I honestly think it's a sign of a mature faith, one that's open to allowing Christ to do with them as he pleases.

Just some initial thoughts. I'd love if you'd share yours!


Why are we afraid of asking questions?


Hello gang!

There's lots to come this week, including a book review (I hope) of Falling Upward. Also to come soon to the blog (probably not until I return from Africa) will be the long anticipated review of Love Wins by Rob Bell. I've been waiting for a while to get my review in to try to let the dust settle.

But this post, not a review of the book itself, is actually a review of said "dust" we're all waiting to settle. Rob's book caused a great stir when it was being previewed and advertised. It's reception has been mixed since it came out and people actually started you know, reading it. And as someone who has an unbelievably long standing love affair with all things Rob Bell, I've found myself at the center of some questions from friends (and not so-friendly people).

Some would argue that the book is the best thing since sliced toast.

A significant portion more than that would argue that it's the most dangerous book to come out since they gave away free knives in cookbooks.

And still others don't think it's the secret to the meaning of life, but it's also not as bad as a lot of the hype makes it out to be (What are the odds that the media would blow something out of proportion?)

If you ask me (and again, we'll get to my views when I finish my second read through and get around to posting a review) all three are valid positions. This book does offer a lot of freedom to people who for years have felt trapped by a particular brand of Christianity. This book is dangerous to faiths for whom this is a new and murky topic (though, whoever said Christianity avoided danger?)

My problem is with (as in most cases) the tone of the argument around this book and the beliefs expressed within. Because (and again, I'm reading the book again because I went through pretty fast the first time around) it seems to me that this book is not a statement of theological fact. It's not a doctrine statement. It's not a decree. It is in it's most basic and rudimentary form, a book that asks a lot of questions.

Leading questions? Probably. Deep questions? Sure. Unnerving questions? In some cases. But truthfully, questions are all this book seems to offer us. It comes across to me as Rob trying his best to understand the world, and even more importantly, to understand the world through the lens of the grace and peace of Jesus Christ. Which leads me to my big point and question for us today:

If we affirm (and I do) that Jesus Christ is the "way, the truth, and the life," and not only that, we affirm (again, I do) that he is the ultimate source of truth in our world and all worlds, then what question could Jesus (and/or our faith in him) not be able to handle? Is there a rabbit hole so deep that it actually leads us away from the ultimate truth of the universe? And if so, is it still an ultimate truth?

If I am asked questions, even questions that may or may not rattle my faith a little bit, won't that ultimately lead me to a deeper and more resounding understanding of my relationship with Jesus?

Actually, the problem occurs to me just now after typing that sentence. Jesus Christ is the absolute truth in the universe. Our faith (by which I mean our system of beliefs and doctrines) is not. When we engage in a sort of tribalistic Christianity, in which only our view points are true and everyone else's are wrong, then questions can cause us a great deal of harm.

But if we open ourselves up to the ultimate truth, even if that truth is outside of our particular faith system or doctrinal statement, then questions aren't threatening at all. The truth will ultimately do what it always does.

It will set us free.

More to come, but I'd love to hear your thoughts!



Summer Reading List


Hello friends!

Man, I think I literally had to dust off the J-Blog when I opened up my computer today! Sorry for the long delay between posts!

There's a lot that's going to be coming our way. Depending on the internet connection, there may or may not be some posts coming your way from Malawi when the team heads over there next week. Of course, your prayers are appreciated. I'm also working on a few projects that might require J-Blog input, so we'll see what happens.

In the meantime, I've started a summer reading list for myself, and I thought I'd share what I'm planning on working through and seeing if any of you are working through these books with me.

1. Falling Upward, Richard Rohr
I'm already most of the way through this book. It's a really good read! My iPad is getting sort of cranky with me for all the highlighting I've done, but there are a lot of lines that I'm looking to pull for upcoming sermons. I'll have a full review when I finish the full text.

2. Quitter, Jon Acuff
I don't really have any desire to quit my job at all, but anything that encourages people to be dreamers is alright in my book. Plus, Jon Acuff is an absolutely hilarious man, so I'm looking forward to ripping into this one.

3. Erasing Hell, Francis Chan
Is this a response to Rob Bell's Love Wins? I don't think so, but all the same, it's on the same topic. Plus, for as much as I may disagree with the conclusions Chan comes to (who knows, haven't even opened this one yet), I know from past experience that Chan is a man I can trust, who does his biblical homework better than most. The conversation continues!

4. Black Tide, Antonia Juhasz
This book was recomended in Relevant's summer reading list, and the BP oil spill of last year is something that always interested/disturbed me greatly. What was it's impact, and how is that impact still being felt by folks down in the Gulf? I don't want to be ignorant, I want to know what's going on in the world around me.

5. The War of Art, Steven Pressfield
I read this book at least once a year. It's super helpful for me as a creative type person to keep my priorities in line, and try to keep myself productive. This will be my third pass through it, and each time so far I've learned a little bit more about myself and the work of art.

Usually, I'd tell you that there's no way I'm getting through all 5 books, but with two 20+ hour plane flights in my near future, I wouldn't be surprised if I have to make a new list in late July!

What are you reading? Have you read any of these books?

More to come!