Top-10 Things Your Youth Pastor Would Like to Say

Shingles. Anxiety. Sleepless nights. High blood pressure. Gun-shy decision-making. Significant loss in self-esteem & confidence. Unhealthy eating habits. Depression. A meager spiritual life.

I’d experienced all of these by my 5th year in youth ministry.

Now, I know many people think youth ministry is just organizing a fun game of dodgeball or sardines. I mean, how hard can it be? But it turns out, it’s pretty tough not just physically or mentally, but on the soul.

Consider the all the roles your youth pastor is expected to be completely proficient in:

– creative event/party planner,
– engaging, funny, and deep teacher/communicator,
– successful publicist,
– charismatic personality,
– bible-knowledge expert,
– teen-culture expert,
– consistent parent liaison,
– media and technology guru,
– data-entry and records keeping professional,
– team-manager and volunteer director,
– student mentor and leadership developer,
– social-media master,
– spiritual and family relationship counselor,
– conflict negotiator in teenage relationship struggles,
– and janitor (cause lets face it, we all know who gets to clean up that messy game from last Wednesday).

Add to these expectations (and more) the countless hours spent hanging-out with students at football games, Starbucks, Denny’s, musicals, and coaching girl’s basketball and you’ve got a pretty full schedule. And while many youth pastors have the ability to delegate some of these responsibilities, most will tell you that they are under-resourced with personal capability, adult personnel, and money to make many of these roles successful.

The expectations are high. The desire is authentic. The reality is slim.

Any given Sunday, there are a bunch of youth pastors on the verge of mental and spiritual breakdown.

Now as I’ve gotten older, I’ve personally found healthier ways to deal with the difficulties of the job, and healthier contexts to do it in.  But today there are many young youth pastors who find themselves where I was a few years ago.  If you aren’t involved in career ministry, it might come as a surprise that the spiritual leaders that care for your students at church are struggling in this way.  And maybe it’s worth a look into the thoughts I’ve heard youth pastors say to each other but rarely to anyone else.

So, with that in mind, here are a few things that are being kept inside. These might not all apply to all youth leaders, but chances are they’ve all thought them at some point or another. And it’s worth a look into the real struggles of these committed leaders.

The TOP-10 things your youth pastor would like to say but is usually too scared to:


1) “I’m a normal person, please treat me like one.”

I know I’m the leader of an important ministry, but I’m also a person. When I get a vicious email or nasty criticism, it hurts. Many times I feel like the criticism comes from strangers rather than brothers and sisters in Christ. In fact, I’m often amazed at the harsh criticism I receive from people I don’t really know. If you’ve got concerns, could you please let me know while remembering I’m a real person with real feelings.

2) “I’m doing the best I can, please cut me some slack.”

I’m overworked and have a lot of students and their problems on my mind. There are lots of things I’d like to get done in better organization of our group, but the tyranny of what has to get done today and the sudden crisis that pop up in students’ lives rob me of time to deal with it all. I’m doing my best. Please give me some grace. I’ll get the parent newsletter out as soon as I can.

3) “I don’t know all the answers, and neither do you.”

Maybe I didn’t teach something last week that covered everything you’d like. Maybe I asked too many questions and didn’t give enough answers. But, I don’t always know what is going to get through to students. I have to try things. I’m trying to earn their trust and break through their apathy. And most likely, you don’t know what will work either or you’d be doing it yourself instead of expecting me to do it.  Please work with me to find out what works and what doesn’t.

4) “I’m not responsible for your student’s spiritual growth, I’m responsible for mine.”

I know you think that it’s your job to drop your kid off at our program and my job to make sure they grow up “Christian,” but the truth is I’m only responsible for my own spiritual growth. I can encourage, equip and inspire your student to follow Jesus, but parents have more influence in how that practically works out and ultimately it is something each student must choose for himself/herself. If you want more depth for your student, dig deeper with them. Don’t just expect me to do it.

5) “I need more help, not more criticism.”

I realize that youth ministry will always be a lightning rod for criticism. We play messy games, ask disturbing questions and employ controversial strategies all in an effort to reach students for Jesus. And I know you don’t like them all, but you should know that sharp criticism makes me want to engage in these activities more not less. I know I’m not doing everything right, but it’s hard for me to hear “disengaged criticism.” Get involved and start fighting in the trenches with me and I’ll be much more inclined to hear your “suggestive correction.”

6) “I invest in a lot of relationships, but very few invest in me.”

My life is a constant out-pouring of time and energy into people around me. I invite them to coffee, I go to their performances or do any number of other things that aren’t what I’d prefer to do at the moment. Many times I have to risk awkwardness and rejection to try and build relationships. But, almost no one does this for me. I’ve been invited over for lunch or dinner (without an agenda) only a few times. And rarely does anyone check-in on how I’m doing spiritually. I’m constantly giving of myself and very rarely receiving anything back. I feel very alone. I need someone to befriend me and pour into me.

7) “If I really had freedom, I’d probably do this ministry totally different.”

You probably don’t know this, but most of how we do youth ministry today is from the 1950’s and I’m not married to it. In fact, if it was totally up to me, I’d probably blow the whole thing up and re-dream it entirely to fit a new generation. But you have to understand I’m under a lot of pressure from leaders above me to keep a status quo and not “rock the boat too much.” I understand this thing isn’t doing all we hope it will do, but I’m making the most of what I’ve been commissioned to do.

8) “My family is making a huge sacrifice for me to do this, please honor them.”

This job is not for bankers. I don’t work 9-to-5 on Monday through Friday. I work almost every day of the week, doing things you might not consider “hard work” but which nevertheless take me away from my family. A youth retreat is not a vacation for me. It’s a 100-hour work weekend away from my family. Please help me take care of my family. Offer to babysit. Send my wife and I on marriage renewal weekends. Or just check in on my family while I’m gone and see if they need anything. They pay a big price for my interaction with students, so honor them for it.

9) “I’m not a ‘real-pastor’ in training, what I do is already important.”

My job is not a senior-pastor-in-training position. In fact, as hard as this is to believe, I might not ever want to be a senior-pastor. I do what I do because I value students. I’m not trying to climb a corporate church ladder. I care about the teenagers I see each week and I desperately want them to see the reality of the kingdom of God that exists around them. This job is the job I want when I grow up. I just hope I don’t grow up, so I can do this job forever.

10) “I’m the least-paid in my field, with possibly the toughest assignment.”

It’s no surprise that youth pastors are among the least paid on a church staff. I probably get paid half of what your senior-pastor makes, but you should know that it’s one of the most difficult tasks in church. Trust me, no senior-pastor or executive-pastor (as tough as their job is) wants to figure out how to simultaneously entertain, teach and emotionally grab a room full of 16-year-olds. In fact, most are scared to death just thinking about it. It’s a tough job, and we lose more good youth pastors every year because we don’t value what they do enough and they need more to live on.

Is that a tough glimpse into what many youth pastors are feeling? Possibly. But I think it articulates what many have communicated to me or in certain cases what I myself have experienced.

Of course, youth pastors will be quick to tell you, there are a bunch of great benefits to working within the body of Christ. Seeing young people make decisions that change their life, watching leaders grow and become all they can be, and living in the middle of human brokenness and seeing God bring healing is incredibly rewarding.  And most of them find the drawbacks worth the incredible joy of working with students; I know I do.

But giving these hidden struggles a voice is good.  Too many young, good leaders are drowning in them because they don’t want to sound “whiny” or “ungrateful” or “incapable” of doing their job.  And while we care for young people, we should also care about the people-caring-about-young-people.

So next time you see your youth pastor in the church hall, give her a hug or take him to dinner. I promise you that most of them can identify with many of the statements above. And they might be better off if they know you do too.

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The Call to Controversy

Need something stimulating to think about?

You could hardly go wrong with Brian McLaren’s new book, “A New Kind of Christianity.”

This book is certainly continuing to stir up not only healthy dialogue about important topics of faith, but also controversy in the Christian arena. It seems that there is very little middle-ground of opinion in regards to this book. People tend to either love it or hate it. And like it or not, in Christian circles this book looks to be THE “most talked-about” read of the year.

So, why endorse something that is the source of such controversy? Well, for several reasons:

1) WE NEED TO BE AWARE OF THE DISCUSSION.

Lots of people will be talking about this book and the questions that it raises. And make no mistake, they are important questions, no matter what you think are the correct answers. These are the questions of 21st century Christianity; questions of both those inside and outside the mainstream church today. Whether you realize it or not, you will be a part of this discussion. In fact, your voice will help shape this discussion.

And let me suggest that you actually read what is being stated by this intriguing side of the discussion. I have and will continue to read many disparaging comments and blogs about Brian McLaren’s view from people who disagree with his answers, which by the way is just part of the healthy dialogue. But, what is not healthy is that many of the people on the opposite side of the debate have not actually read McLaren’s books.

“That Brian McLaren has really gone off the deep end. I think he’s dangerous.”
“Have you read his book?”
“No, but I’ve heard he said such and such.”

Brian McLaren

Maybe we ought to be a bit more informed as we enter this discussion. Whether it is McLaren or MacArthur, maybe we should actually LISTEN to what they have to say and the context in which they say it before we criticize them. In fact, while you may disagree with either person in many areas, you may find some common ground as well. Or perhaps even more importantly, you may disagree with the conclusions, but may find a respectful appreciation for the spirit of the person and their questions.

In a recent interview, McLaren makes a case for this in responding to the way people easily dismiss his questions as “liberal” without considering his possibly more complex stance:

“I wouldn’t want to overlook the many ways in which my proposals differ from traditional liberal theology. My attitudes and commitments regarding Jesus, the Holy Spirit, scripture, spiritual experience, institutionalism, personal commitment and conversion, evangelism and discipleship, and many other subjects make many of my liberal friends think of me as conservative. Sometimes I wonder if evangelicals simply use the word “liberal” as a way to say, “Let’s stop listening to this person. He’s too different from us, and so is not worth our time and attention.” I hope that’s not the case, but sometimes, this is what I feel like when evangelicals use “the L word.”

For me, liberal is not automatically a bad word. If liberal means free from tyranny, I’m for it. If liberal means generous, I’m for it. If liberal means believing that our best days are ahead of us, I’m for it. If liberal means welcoming honest questions and giving honest scholarship a fair hearing, I’m for it. If, on the other hand, liberal means without restraint, or careless about tradition, or dismissive of scripture, or institutional and lukewarm regarding commitment to Christ, and so on, then I wouldn’t want to be associated with that. And we could say parallel things about the word conservative.”

Huh, maybe he’s not as crazy as people say. But, that’s not important. You don’t have to agree with McLaren, but maybe we should give him a fair-hearing (or rather reading). It may be that he is not as “off-the-deep-end” as we think. Or even if he is, that he is at least still committed to the best of his mental and reasoning ability to Jesus, if only incorrect.

2) WE NEED TO BE THINKERS

What I like best about this book is that it forces us to wrestle with concepts we take for granted and THINK. Controversy can only exist where people are seriously grasping and thinking and reasoning. And in that way, a healthy dose of controversy is probably very good for the modern church.

I work with high school students on a regular basis, and by far my greatest goal in my time with them is not to give them all the answers. Do I want them to have good answers? Of course. But more importantly, I want them to learn HOW to question, HOW to find good answers. I want to help them learn HOW to THINK. Many more questions will come up in their lives long after I am gone, and I’d rather they learned how to critically think about those questions sure-to-come in the future rather than just have some spoon-fed responses from me about the ones they are asking right now.

Ironically, many high schoolers I know are better at wrestling with questions and learning to think than a lot of adults. And maybe that is a bigger problem in our churches today than we’d care to admit. We just don’t think for ourselves. We’ve accepted long-held answers (many of which might be correct, by the way) to many old questions (some of which people aren’t asking anymore) without ever thinking it through ourselves. We are lazy. Lazy theologically. Lazy mentally.

This has direct consequences for our witness to the world. Because while we are busy being content with answers to questions we’ve never genuinely asked ourselves, the rest of the world is actively and honestly seeking answers. The church is irrelevant because by and large we can’t speak authentically to these questions. We appear to be a second-hand, consignment store of truth because we are primarily selling the “hand-me-down responses” of generations before us rather than doing the hard work of wrestling with the deeper questions and making sense of them in this time and context for ourselves.

Consider just these few questions: How is the Bible unique and why should it apply to my life? What makes the Bible authoritative in my life? How do I know it is the “Word of God?” What does it mean that it was “inspired?” What in the Bible is culturally-conditioned for people at the time of it’s writing and what is a universal-truth that applies to me? How do I know the difference? Can I know the difference? Is there a difference?

While just the tip of the proverbial ice-berg, these questions alone go a long way in helping answer modern dilemmas such as human sexuality, the character of God, the purpose of Jesus, social justice, and other ethical considerations.

Some will agree with the conclusions of the author and others will not. But no matter what you think of McLaren’s answers, what is undisputable is that these questions need to be asked. Or rather, these questions are already being asked by many people (friends, family, co-workers) around us. McLaren is not by far the first person to ask these questions, but he is suggesting that rather than dismissing the people who ask them maybe we ought to spend some time struggling with them as well and as a community “led by the Spirit” recalibrating the answers to this time and in our current context.

As McLaren says:

“That’s why, in the end, I hope people will actually read the book with an open heart and mind. I’m not expecting that anyone will agree with everything — that’s not my point. But I am hoping that people will be stimulated to think, and maybe even to dream of better possibilities … so the Christianity of the future can continue to learn and grow and not simply repeat the past or be stuck in the present.”

Is it dangerous to read a book that challenges things that you believe and causes you to ask some rather unsettling questions about your core beliefs? Possibly. But far more dangerous for the church today is not reading these books and not asking these inquiries.

So go ahead and risk it. It’s okay to hang up the “under-construction: please come back later” sign on your theology for the weekend. Pick up the book and let it mess you up a little bit. Be okay to let the questions move you to a place of uncertainty for a while. Inhale the ambiguity and breathe deep the tension of inquisition.

It may be that once the smoke and fog has cleared you find yourself with some “real” answers. Or at the very least, a greater understanding & compassion for and a stronger, more respected voice into the life of seekers around you.

It could be the church will be healthier for the controversy.

What About Romans 13?

Welcome back!  I know it has been a while since my last entry.  The summer months get kinda hectic for a youth pastor.  However, we are going to jump right back into our discussion on “Jesus & Non-violence” today with another guest blog.

(If you are just joining us, please consider getting caught up on our conversation through the links to the right.)

Shane Claiborne

Shane Claiborne

Today, I am excited to introduce someone to you that many of you know or have heard of already.  His name is Shane Claiborne.  He has written several well known books:

“The Irresistible Revolution”

“Jesus for President”.

I would highly recommend both of these books.  Shane has quickly become one of my favorite authors on this topic and I think you will appreciate his insights as well.

I asked Shane to help address a question that many of you have asked from the beginning of this conversation, which is “what about Romans 13?”  He agreed to participate in our blogalogue and submitted this article that I believe he wrote in tandem with his co-writer for “Jesus for President”, Chris Haw.

Thank you, Shane and Chris, for sharing your thoughts with us here!

Oh, and make sure to read the “footnotes” on this one… especially #3!

_________________________________________________________________________________

The popularly misquoted Romans 13 is surrounded by exhortations to not conform to the patterns of the world, love one’s enemies, and overcome evil with good. The passage in 1 Peter 2: 13ff on submitting to authority is woven into a larger tapestry about Christians living as aliens and strangers to the ways of the world. So before we hastily jump to the conclusion that these passages support Christian war or violence, we must understand what they actually say and their placement in overarching New Testament themes.

Because of space limitations, we’ll address only Romans 13.  So, let’s start by reading Paul.

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.

But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
(Romans 13:1–7)

Some talking points about this text. (1)

1.  To study any text with an appropriate sympathy, one must give it the benefit of the doubt before judging it.

"The Irresistible Revolution"

"The Irresistible Revolution"

One must allow the text to be “innocent until proven guilty.” This means we must assume that the author (in this case, Paul) is intelligent enough not to contradict himself or herself.  If there is coherence in Paul’s thought, then we can use his clear passages to illuminate passages that are harder to understand.  Granting this, we can assume that Paul’s point in Romans 13 harmonizes with the rest of his politics.  Without this initial sympathy, we might fail to understand a text.  The critical eye, squinting with distrust, cannot see clearly.

And it’s a disservice to an author to reconcile apparent contradictions in different texts by “balancing” them, concluding, for example, that “Christians need both a violent side and a peaceful side.”  Others simply write off Romans 13 as either a later compromise in Paul’s originally radical politics, or another author’s later addition to a largely nonconformist epistle.  But what if, instead of having two contradicting points, Paul had a single point?

Let’s assume that nowhere in Romans 13:1–7 is Paul saying anything that contradicts what he says at the end of the previous chapter:

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. … Live in harmony with one another. … Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’  says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
(Romans 12:14–21)

2.  Note that the text says God orders “all authority.”

As we asked before, what would this text sound like to a German Christian under Hitler’s rule or an Iraqi Christian under Saddam’s rule?  It is easy to blindly use this text to support some militaristic adventure of Constantine or the United States and assume its divine sanction, but this overlooks the fact that “all” must include all authorities: Nero, Domitian, Pilate, Mao Tse-tung, Saddam Hussein, Hitler’s Third Reich, and so on.

World_Greatest_Dictators_by_vherandAlso, there is no place in the text where these authorities, under the right conditions, are considered divinely inspired (therefore worthy of obedience) or, not meeting some criteria, are considered divinely condemned (therefore worthy of disobedience).  The text does not give ordination only to democratically elected governments, but includes dictators!

When certain governmental standards (which have been imported into this text from elsewhere) are not met, some Christians like to introduce an exception: “We must obey God rather than men.”  But this phrase was intended not to provide an exception to the rule but serve as a clue to the overarching politics of the people of God: they always obey God rather than men, and they always subordinate to all authorities.

That God establishes all authority does not mean that God approves of all authorities.  The point is rather that God is to be considered greater than, not equal to, all the powers of this world.  Even the best democracy in the world isn’t worthy of allegiance, for God is sovereign even over it.

trinity-college-library-dub

"God ordered authorities, like a librarian orders books..."

“Established” here means that God orders the powers, as a librarian orders books but doesn’t necessarily approve of their content.  After all, Paul speaks of a government that “rewards the just,” but he also has extensive experience with persecution under its rule, and John of Patmos later refers to the powers (in Revelation 13) as the great whore.

That God “ordered” pagan Assyria to chastise Israel (Isaiah 10) is similar to Paul’s point.  Isaiah made no hint that God approved Assyria or the violence it used, but Israel was to trust that, in their suffering, they were not outside of God’s sovereignty.

Jesus echoed this belief when he declared to Pilate, “You would have no power if it were not given to you from above,” while obviously acknowledging Pilate’s abuse of this power.

Or remember back to when Israel demanded a king despite God’s warnings of what kings would do to them, and “in God’s anger God gave them a king.”

And now we ask God to save us from ourselves and our kings and presidents.

3.  Because Paul gives no conditions for a disciple to be subordinate to the authorities, we see he is talking about something deeper than disobedience or obedience.

Paul, in fact, did not use the word obey (which would imply the sense of bending one’s will). He used the word subordinate, which means that you simply consider yourself under their order.  This word is not about patriotism, pledging allegiance, or any affection for the powers.  Paul isn’t trying to convince unpatriotic Christians to pledge better allegiance.   Rather, Paul’s problem is the opposite: he must convince Christians, who are not conforming to the patterns of this world, not to overthrow the government! (2)

"Jesus for President"

"Jesus for President"

Paul is helping disciples understand the futility of such endeavors, encouraging them to keep on the path described in Romans 12 (and all of Jesus’ life and teaching), and not fly off into a new and hopeless project of vying for power. As Paul makes clear in chapters 9 through 11, Gentiles need to see themselves not as participants in the political dramas of upheavals and revolutions but as part of the set-apart people of God which were begun through Abraham and Sarah.

Subordination is not simply a helpful spiritual caveat to remind the Christian to stay humble.  It’s a necessary safeguard against violence and power.  It’s difficult to find a time in history when the revolutionary, through violence and coercion, doesn’t become a new oppressor.  Jesus knew this was the case in his people’s recent history with the Maccabeans.  Thus Jesus rejected the Zealots’ goal to “take the power back” from Herod or Pilate.  Paul too is rejecting the Zealots’ impulse and opting for revolutionary subordination.  As with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, the only thing that should be done with the ring of power is dissolve it in the fire, not put it in the hands of “a pious man.”

If this ever becomes confusing, one need simply look at the example of Jesus’ death at the hands of the powers to understand subordination.  The way Jesus interacted with the temple courts and with Pilate displays a subordinate yet revolutionary heart.  Jesus never obeyed their whims and wishes—indeed, his wild action in the temple precipitated his arrest—and yet he also nonviolently subordinated to arrest. (3) He understood the powers as fallen but lovingly navigated through their hands, speaking truth that their power had blinded them to.

To overcome evil, he would not resist it but suffered and absorbed it.

4.   The text does not sanction the Christian to take up arms or even try to become the one who “governs by the sword.”

Many warrior Christians like to refer to the “just war tradition.”  And apparently Romans 13 is at the heart of this theory’s constitution.  As you read through the text, you’ll notice there is no place where sanction is given to the Christian to take up arms or even try to become the one who “governs by the sword.”  Indeed, the Christian identity is upheld in this text, as it was a chapter before, as radically distinct from the powers.

For Paul, the powers and the state are clearly a “they,” because he pledges allegiance to another Lord.  Much just-war reflection fails not only in its logic and application but also in its preconception: their “we” is not the church but the state.  In response to the question, “What should we have done in World War II?” we must ask, “Who is we?”

faith-and-politicsIf you are a Christian and your citizenship is in Jesus’ kingdom, reflection begins not with the powers but with the church.  The church should not have religiously supported, fought for, and obeyed Hitler.  The church should have been enacting the teachings of Jesus.  The church should have been taking in Jews and others who were hunted.  In many instances the church was doing these things, but this is not the history we learn.  Each of these instances, as in the case of Schindler or in our Celestin story or with the midwives in Egypt, are acts of holy subversion and disobedience. We are blessed to learn the lessons of history through the small, faithful ones in the Church (instead of through gigantic military history).

Not only does Romans 13 make no mention of Christians and the sword, it also doesn’t talk about the state and war.  When the text refers to the sword (v. 4, machiara: “short dagger”), the Greek word used refers not to war but to the symbol of local policing—it is the sword Roman officers would carry while accompanying tax-collectors.  There are many Greek words that refer to war, but machiara is not one of them.

But if we must talk about the state and war, “just war” is the most identifiable tradition in the church.  If Christians actually held to this theory, they would never go off to war.  Just-war theory isn’t a “justify any war” theory.  It defines a just war by stringent criteria and was intended to criticize governments, minimize violence, and define several reasons wars were wrong.  It should not be used to encourage Christians to abandon Jesus’ teachings.

5.  Only when the state resists evil and rewards good can the state be considered God’s servant.

The conditional word “attending” (also “give their full” v. 6, proskarterountes) helps us read the verse to say “they are servants of God insofar as they busy themselves with governing (resisting evil and rewarding good).”  When this condition is met, it’s not as if the Christian would join in resisting evil—no, they are still called to overcome evil as agents of the gospel, not agents of wrath.  And as we said before, if this condition is not met, it’s not as if Christians are justified in overthrowing the government either! (4)

In a similar way, the fact that the prophets speak of what a good king should do doesn’t change the fact that kings were not part of God’s original plan but a breaking of God’s heart (1 Samuel 8).  The condition is simply to define for the Christian a broad conception of what the state is doing, which is not what the Christian is doing. (5) The act of resisting evil is what Paul and Jesus explicitly prohibited for Christians (Romans 12; Matthew 5).

carew6It may be argued that this reading of Romans 13 leaves the dirty work of violence to the state while Christians keep their hands clean. Paul, indeed, understands that the powers play a role.  (Paul had been protected from riot violence by this pagan government.  Doubtlessly he was grateful for this, but he also seemed to be indifferent to this protection when he declared, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.”)  The powers’ role is simply part of the old order that is passing away and crumbling.

It’s as if an old castle, deteriorating and full of holes in the walls from war, is being rebuilt.  The powers, partly responsible for creating the cycles of war, protect the castle from further bombing and set up scaffolds and girders to keep the building from crumbling on everyone’s heads.  They mitigate the mess they haven’t yet become convinced to stop making.  Meanwhile, those committed (the church) to the renewed castle make peace between the warriors who destroyed the castle, redesign its architecture, rework the plumbing, and so on.  But if the reworkers resort to constructing gun turrets on the walls, they simply assure the tightening of the cycle that destroyed everything.

This analogy, like any, falls short.  But the picture is that the old order plays a role, but it’s a limited and largely negative role.  Rather than trying to save a sinking ship, Christians are to be helping people get into lifeboats.  To the extent that people play a part in the old order of violence and power, they prolong and maintain it.

Put simply, “the most effective way to contribute to the preservation of society in the old aeon is to live in the new.” (6)

————————————————————-

footnotes:

(1)   It would be hard to cite all of the places where John Yoder has influenced these short observations. His remarks in The Politics of Jesus (especially the chapter “Let Every Soul Be Subject”) have thoroughly influenced our understanding. Readers would do well to go beyond our sketch and read his work and the works from which he draws.

(2)  A few years before this epistle Priscilla and Aquila had been expelled from Rome in connection with a tax revolt, and a new revolt was brewing under Nero. Paul’s point is that the insurrectionist motives behind this are missing the gospel’s methods of revolution. (See Klaus Wengst, The Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 82.

(3)  “The conscientious objector who refuses to do what a government demands, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, or the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him or her to death, is being subordinate even though not obeying” (John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994], 209).

(4)  “The conception of a ‘state properly so called,’ in the name of which one would reject and seek to overthrow the state which exists empirically, is totally absent in the passage. In the social context of the Jewish Christians in Rome, the whole point of the passage was to take out of their minds any concept of rebellion against or even emotional rejection of this corrupt pagan government” (Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 200).

(5)  “Christians are told (12:19) to never exercise vengeance but to leave it to God and to wrath. Then the authorities are recognized (13:14) as executing the particular function which the Christian was to leave to God … the function exercised by the government is not the function exercised by the Christians” (Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 198).

(6)  John Howard Yoder, The Original Revolution (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2003), 83.

The End of Christian America

[great article link at the bottom of this post!]

Until recently, I lived in the most “unchurched” region of the country.

Now apparently, that designation has switched (very slightly) from the Northwest part of our country to the Northeast (though really “church” hasn’t been popular in either region for years).  But, whether we are first in “lack of churchiness” or second, if there is one thing I know it is living in a post-Christian religion environment.

Newsweek coverWhich is why it interested me to read several articles recently that seemed to indicate what many of us have thought for years, that the rest of the country is catching up to us… in godlessness, that is.   [see “The End of Christian America” and  “The Coming Evangelical Collapse”]

Recent studies find that American people are exiting the Christian religion in greater numbers than ever.  Be it evangelical, mainline, etc, America is losing it’s religion.

So what does this mean?  Well, I suppose that depends on who you ask.  Many people think that it isn’t exactly ideal.  I have heard many well-meaning preachers proclaim it as the beginning of the end; the ushering in of Armageddon.  Ahhh, you premillenialist friends are always looking for the signs of the end, aren’t you?  =)

But, it isn’t among just preachers.  There is panic among many everyday Christians.  There is fear that what has been the driving force of morality in this country is going to erode and leave their children depraved and godless.  I have sat in a pew next to many parents who feel this tension all too keenly.  Even in Seattle (where we have a several decade head start in living in this environment) the church (generally), is characterized by great fear in this arena.  It seems as though this decline in the Christian religion–at least in the form we are accustomed to–can only be a bad thing.

Now, before going any further, I’d like you to know that I understand this fear.  I think I understand why many of my brothers and sisters, whom I love, feel this way.  It is indeed scary to see the moral/religious fiber of your country shaken.  I can sympathize with this uncertainty.

christian_america2However, I think our fear may be causing us to behave strangely.  If you read this blog, you know that I often call-out the apparent un-Christlikeness of the church.   In doing so, I am not meaning to say that I don’t believe in Jesus.  I do.  I believe Jesus has opened the fullest and most meaningful way of life for all people.  I want more people to experience this life, not less.  And, I am not trying to say I don’t believe in the church.  Christians don’t necessarily have bad intentions.  I simply think we need to be very careful and think extremely critically about our methods of communicating a message.  Too often, the methods have become the message.  Too easily we believe that we should use any means necessary to convey our point and “the ends justify the means” should never be the attitude of Christ’s people.  Especially as it relates to the fear of “losing our Christian nation.”

Fear of the end of Christian America.

Because of this fear, we have seen (I believe) many Christians behaving in ways that do not show love.  Whether it is the polarizing political attempt to legislate Christianity, the stereotyping generality of protest signs or simply the attempt to shame those who are perceived as the danger through our bumperstickers, t-shirts and slogans.

Because of fear we have reacted poorly.

But, perhaps, we do not need to fear this decline so much as we have thought.  Maybe what we feel we need to protect doesn’t need protected at all.  Maybe, the cause of Christ could be advanced in a much more meaningful way if what we are scared to lose was really to disappear.

You see, living in Seattle, I have heard for as long as I can remember about how non-churched this region is.  I grew up knowing that I was among less than 10% of my local population that attended any type of church each week.   I heard these statistics as a teenager, while in Bible college and beyond in ministry.  I was taught that I was the only beacon of religion in a depraved land.

But, as I’ve hung out with people, got to know them and seen many of them make decisions to follow the life and example of Jesus with their lives authentically, I have learned that these statistics are a bit misleading.  The reality of my interaction with people in this “godless” land is not as dire as I had been made to believe.  In fact, while we may be declining in religious fervor, I have found people here to be more spiritually open to discussion than ever before.

Almost no one that I meet anymore is unwilling to have a spiritual discussion with me, as long as it is honest and not aimed at “converting” them.   And though this seems strange to some of you, I actually think that the message of Jesus is finding more traction in this culture that we fear than in the one we felt comfortable in previously.  It is almost as if the dismantling of the “civic religion of Christianity” is helping people to rediscover the Jesus behind this cultural influence.

church_stateOf course we all know people that would label themselves “Christian” though they make no attempt to follow and model the life of Jesus.  This country, since its beginning, has been labeled by the same generic label, “Christian.”  It has become a cultural and national label rather than an affiliation with the personhood of Jesus.  This faux Christianity, I contend, has actually made it much more difficult to lead people to authentic relationship with Jesus.  And to see it decline, in some odd sense (to some of you) gives me great hope for the future.

I believe we live in the greatest moment for followers of Jesus in the history of our world (and country).  I believe that this decline is preparing the soil (and has already) for a much deeper commitment to Jesus in the hearts of people than we have seen in our lifetimes.   It is not a day for fear, but for great expectation.  It is a great day to be a follower of Jesus!

I have included a link below to a blog by Greg Boyd.  His excellent blog lays out several reasons not to fear this decline.  Hopefully, it will be very helpful to some of you.

“Don’t Weep for the Demise of American Christianity”

But he also has two excellent books on this subject.  The second of which just came out last week and is fantastic.  Both of these books should be required reading for Christians in America.  If you haven’t read them, please consider picking up a copy this week.

themythofachristiannation

myth of a christian religion

“Day of Silence” – Will You Be Heard?

I don’t think I’ve ever gone a whole day without talking.

In fact, I’m not actually sure I’ve made it through very many complete hours without talking.  It seems that I’m vary rarely at a loss of words or something to say.  (If you read this blog, you’ve already figured this out).  =)

But, tomorrow, I’m gonna stay quiet.

day of silenceTomorrow is the annual “Day of Silence.”  Many high school students will choose to “not talk” during the day tomorrow in order to show their solidarity with their many peers that are wrestling with LGBT issues in loneliness and fear.

Now, I know many Christians who vehemently oppose this movement each year.  In fact, last year I think I witnessed an all new low in Christian depravity as a local church actually held a protest outside a high school in my area (read last year’s blog here).

A church protesting high school students?  Huh?

Effectively, though the church leaders claim nobler intentions, the message was “God hates gay people and so do Christians.”

And while many people will not go so far as to hold a protest outside a school tomorrow, a noticeable amount of “Christian” students will be absent tomorrow in an effort to make their own statement of condemnation about it.  Others will attend but simply ridicule those participating and be as boisterous as possible in their disruption.

However, I would like to humbly suggest another alternative: PARTICIPATE.

In fact, I’d like to propose that maybe participation is the most CHRIST-LIKE thing we could possibly do.  For while I may not agree with a particular lifestyle that may be reflected in some people of this movement, Jesus calls me to show love to people that are different than me, not condemnation.

Wayne Jacobsen is the publisher of the best-selling book, The Shack. Recently on his Lifestream blog, he wrote:

…many public school students will observe a Day of Silence as a means to protest harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. It has been going on for almost a decade and many parents who are against ‘the gay agenda’ feel the need to keep their kids home that day, or participate in a Day of Truth that makes sure everyone in their district knows they consider homosexuality to be immoral. Is this the way Jesus would respond?

Perhaps a better way to encourage faith-based students to respond would be to adopt the Golden Rule Pledge. “I pledge to treat others the way I want to be treated.” It allows a pro-active response to sharing the burden to increase mutual respect for all, regardless of our differing points of view.

I agree whole-heartedly.  Maybe we should spend less time trying to “win a battle of accepted morality” and more time living a life of CHRIST-LIKE love.  Maybe Jesus’ model of love, compassion and grace really is more powerful than our protest.  Maybe to be silent in solidarity with the weak, in some Kingdom of God way, really is more transforming than our disruptive and polarizing vocalization.

So, I’m gonna stay quiet because even if I disagree with people about their lifestyle, I don’t think Jesus will allow me to treat them with any less love than everyone else.

I’m gonna stay quiet because too many young people wrestling with complex sexual orientation issues are afraid to talk about it for fear of ridicule, ostracization, or even physical harm.

I’m gonna stay quiet because Jesus commands me to treat other people like I would like to be treated, and I so desperately want to let His way of life direct and control my own.

If you’d like to consider participating or supporting those who do as well, please visit this great site for more information on an excellent alternative/compliment to the DOS:

www.goldenrulepledge.com

golden rule pledge

So, join me in trying a new way of life: LOVE.

Consider staying “SILENT.”  It may be that our LBGT community has heard enough of our voices already anyway.

“Letter from MISSISSIPPI” – (#3)

[Letter #3 from MISSISSIPPI – Part 6  of “A Conversation between Seattle and Mississippi”, a chronicle of honest discussion between two friends.]

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Hello again SEATTLE,

I hope you had a great Thanksgiving!

Sitting in church listening and thinking, I have come up with more thoughts for you on this conversation.

First, I have also experienced the desire to let people know that not all Christians are like “that.”  I’ve spent time and energy trying to convince some people of that, and finally realized that as long as I believed the Bible was exclusively true, and not just a nice story, they thought of me like “that” anyway.  So I guess I have gotten burned by that type of motivation….I also came to realize that pride was at least part of it.  “If you knew ME you might have a better view of Christians, I’m not THAT kind of (ignorant, stupid, prejudiced, kooky, crazy, homophobic, racist, redneck, protesting, abortion-clinic-blowing-up, hateful or judgmental) Christian.”  I really thought that those adjectives were the problem. And for some people, maybe they are.  Let’s make sure we aren’t doing the damage ourselves, however, by misrepresenting our brothers and sisters as actually being this way, if they are not…(dishonest protest picture).

Second, I mentioned that Jesus promised the world would hate us.  Not that we should seek that out from the world, but that we shouldn’t have a problem with the world hating us or hating Jesus because of us.  It’s just not true that “we must be doing something wrong if people hate us.” In fact, considering what Jesus promises, a more appropriate question would be, are we following him with integrity if no one hates us?

You interpret “the world” to mean other Christians. This gets into a really common attitude today.  People love to say that Christ’s biggest enemies were the religious people of his day…implying therefore, if He came back today, WE would be his enemies.  Todd Agnew’s popular song, “My Jesus” says: my Jesus would never be accepted in my church / The blood and dirt on His feet might stain the carpet / But He reaches for the hurting and despises the proud / I think He’d prefer Beale Street [bars/nightclubs] to the stained glass crowd….

Back then “religious” people were completely different than they are today.  They were an orthodox group with special status…not just any common person could believe and become “religious” the way they do today.  For the most part, those who are “religious” by today’s definition are not modern-day Pharisees, but rather his disciples!  His disciples were sinners who changed their entire lives after encountering him.  The “sinners” he loved too much, gathered around to hear him speak the good news.  They loved and believed in him.

The Pharisees’ problem was not that Jesus loved too much, it was his message that sinners-become-disciples had equal or greater spiritual status than the Pharisees.  The prodigal son who comes home and the man who begins work at the 11th hour receive equal rewards as lifelong rule-keepers.  Rather than the pious and self-righteous, pure-blood Jews who had always been in charge, every day “sinners” had equal access to eternal life.  This offended those in charge, because they wanted to be saved for what they were doing, not for believing in Jesus.  My point is that Jesus will be hated by those who do not believe in him, whether they are sinners or happen to call themselves “religious.”

I also think you made a false statement about the world we live in.  You said, “If people who DID believe thought Jesus loved too much, how much more those who don’t believe?”  First, like I said, I don’t think it was those who believed, and I don’t think it was loving too much, it was not wanting everyone who believed in Christ to be saved.  But, my real problem with this statement is that it misrepresents our culture.  Tolerance, acceptance and affirmation are the gods of our age.  I would be shocked if “the world” would ever hate anyone for loving too much today.  So I really just don’t think that’s what Jesus is talking about here.

Finally, I thought about Sodom & Gomorrah and Lot’s attitude there, and that he was praised as a righteous man…He did not engage or accept the culture there.  In fact he was accused of “judging” them simply for not wanting to aid them in their sin.  You mentioned Jonah…whatever other points might be made, the message he was sent by God to preach to total strangers was, repent or be destroyed.  That was the message, and it worked!  Even though he didn’t love them first or at all, even though they had no relationship with him and no reason to listen to him.  Verbal violence?  God was pleased that he was able to spare Ninevah (I am sure they were thrilled too) and that would not have been possible if not for Jonah’s message.  In Revelation and the letters to the churches, tolerating the sinful, immoral and idolatrous among them is an incredible offense against Jesus; not tolerating or even hating the wicked is seen as a virtue!  In Romans 1, Paul talks about people knowing that sins deserve death but that they not only continued sinning but also approved of those who did, implying that something other than approval was needed.

Intolerance for sin seems to be biblical….but it’s pretty much the worst thing you could display in our culture. So I think that’s a pretty good reason why the world might hate us. I never said we should be hateful or that we should not love sinners, but I don’t think that we should turn against other Christians who feel called to speak the truth.  We don’t know that someone might not be saved that way.  Who’s to say that but God?  One of my old churches decided to not try to bring anyone to church but just offer free water or carwashes on Saturday so they could be loving like Jesus.  That’s good for the church members, but I’m sure it won’t help anyone else’s soul.  And frankly, as long as there is just 1 wacky church out there to make the news, our PR with the world is never going to be improved anyway.  That seems to be the wrong tree to be barking up.

Like I said, I’m not condoning hate and I do realize there are hateful Christians out there.  I’m also not saying that having these meaningful, loving relationships with the lost is wrong.  I don’t think that, I think it’s awesome.  I’m glad there are Christians out there doing that but I am also glad there are Christians out there willing to speak the truth in a culture where that is one of the only things considered to be “wrong.”  It’s a shame that believers are hating you for what you’re doing, but I also think it’s a shame that believers have joined the world in hating the others for their message.  Because I think that’s what we are all supposed to be about, in a united way, now more than ever.

Many more thoughts to follow…. I have started rereading the NT through this lens.  It is strange that I would consider something so important and basic, a new way of thinking.  But for me, a lot of these questions and considerations really are new.  I suppose what is new, is the postmodern statement that protest without relationship is verbal violence, along with the presumption that publicly speaking truth is “protest.” But whatever the prompting, I think the question is important and deserves to have time spent on it!  So, thanks again.

MISSISSIPPI

“Letter from SEATTLE” – (response #2)

[Response #2 from SEATTLE – Part 5 of “A Conversation between Seattle and Mississippi”, a chronicle of honest discussion between two friends.]

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Hey, MISSISSIPPI:

Hahahahaha!  You respond so quickly!  It takes me weeks to have time to sit down and write an email like that, and before I wake up you have written back. =)  So, I thought I would continue the dialogue—a little quicker myself.

And I think you must have been watching me write the last email because I really was smiling and laughing half the time!  Of course, it was late at night and I get a little delirious when I’m tired.   Well, and Jay Leno and Conan were on, so that makes me laugh too.

But, I also do appreciate a good friendly conversation that isn’t communicated through anger, meanness or general insensitivity.  If you only saw some of the emails and comments that come my way!  I don’t even show them to my wife, most of the time, because they are so full of anger and intensity.  And sadly, they often come from “Christian” brothers and sisters.

I really believe that these are the types of civil and open conversations that more Christians should be having with each other.   And I sincerely appreciate your views and the attitude with which you communicate them.

In regards to your last email, I think we probably agree in more areas than we realize.  For instance, I agree that at times we will be persecuted by people for standing up for what is right.  As you correctly stated, Jesus promises us that the world will hate us as it hated him.   And in that regard, I am OK with not being popular or liked.  Trust me, I have to have some thick skin to write blogs like that!  As much as you might think there are many who would cheer that blog, there are three times more that would like to dis-fellowship me for it.   I simply choose not to post their emails or comments because they are too rude and at times vulgar.

Here is the rub for me, though.  I believe Jesus was willing to be hated and I should too.  However, I just want to make sure that I am hated for the things that Jesus was hated for.  I want to “stand-up” for what Jesus stood for.   And as I read through the gospels, I can’t think of a single time that Jesus was hated because of his proclamation of repentance to people that were notorious sinners, unbelievers, non-religious or of other religious persuasion.  His methods seemed different when it came to outsiders.  He didn’t shy away from the problem, but he didn’t seem to start with behavior modification or correction either.   I do think Jesus wants repentance, but I can’t find any story there that is similar in method to the [mega-pastor] event.  Jesus lived love, and out of that love, spoke healing truth into people’s lives.  His message was about the “Kingdom” available to all, not simply adjusting your behavior.

Honestly, I really want to have those conversations with people around me that are hurting.  And I do engage in those conversations.  In all my relationships with people that don’t follow Christ, I am longing toward one-day (in some cases sooner, others later) sharing the truth as I see it in God’s word that can set them free from oppression, self-indulgence, greed, hostility, loneliness, and despair.  But, with so many of them I can’t start there or they’ll never hear it.  I have to earn that right to speak into their life.

I approach it that way (and hopefully some of my other nut job Christian friends do too) not because I’m ashamed of the message, but because I’m not ashamed to love them regardless of whether or not they ever believe it.

Also, I agree that there are those apparently following Christ who appear “ashamed” of the relationship and of any standard that God calls us to.  Whether this is more so now than at other times, I don’t know.  It seems that truly following Christ has always been counter-cultural and the temptation exists to make His radical claims more palatable.

This, of course, is unnecessary.  And those that distance themselves from the difficult parts of Jesus’ teaching in order to make Jesus sound more acceptable to hearers are not only fooling themselves, but really deceiving those they intend to attract.  And at any rate, I think there are many well-meaning people that are lumped into this category that actually believe more of what I have described above than just “shame” in following Christ.

And, I’m not saying that there aren’t ever going to be times that non-believers disagree with us and even antagonize us for it.  I think that happens too and we should be OK with it.  But I think that happens for similar reasons when the world sees us caring for people it casts-off (i.e. drug dealers, sex offenders, terrorists, etc.).  If people who DID BELIEVE think that Jesus loved too much, how much more those that don’t believe?

Interestingly, though, when Jesus talks about being hated, the reference—I believe—is more the religious people around them than the non-religious.  In Jesus’ own context it was the religious leaders that always hated him.  It was they who killed him.  Not because he preached so much propositional truth, but because he loved too much. Or, if preaching, because he preached the truth about love.

In that way, I think [the mega-pastor] (if the illustrated scenario you described was accurate) misunderstood sacrifice.   He could have still been unpopular in his belief on homosexuality (I think that is fine, in fact, theologically we agree), but found an equally unpopular way (in Jesus’ sense) of loving outsiders.  Instead, it felt to me like he was willing to be unpopular with the world to in some small way be more popular with his church friends.

Now I’M being dangerous because I’m guessing at his motives!  And maybe I’m mistaking his motives (which isn’t really my point anyway—I’m not criticizing his motives, he might be a fine man, just his methods that I don’t think are consistent with Jesus), but if he did feel like a prophet, he’d do well to remember that is was God’s people that were angry with the prophets, not outsiders.  They existed, primarily, to reform God’s people, not convert others.  (the only exception I can think of here is Jonah, and without going into another long email, I think the circumstances illustrate a similar point).

In terms of media, I think you are right here as well.  They do often cast all Christians in one-boat as a bunch of wackos.   Of course media has an agenda too.  And very often they do choose the worst to represent us all.  And in that way, they share part of the blame of the perception of Christians today.  Although, I think we’d be wise to own up to our own fair share responsibility.   The Church does do some weird things sometimes!  LOL.

But, this comes down to several things for me too.  1)  There is a difference, I think, between the “cultural Christianity” in America today and real Authentic Jesus-following stuff.   The “cultural Christianity” (CC) is what makes the news.  It’s the people that say they are Christian, go to church occasionally, but live lives that look nothing like Christ.  Christianity isn’t so much a lifestyle to them, but a cultural definition of who they are.  However, whenever there is something to protest (and I’m not lumping [mega-pastor] in with this group) that is different than their American-Christian worldview, they are the first to speak up.  Not so much based on conviction about Christ’s transformation in their life or the world, but out of a sense of pride in their worldview they’ve always known being right.  These are the people that news agency’s love because they are full of hypocrisy, contradictions and have volatile sound-bites.

Then, there are the many good and devoted followers of Jesus in this country that really live what they preach and love God deeply.   And it is this group that I think you rightly pointed out are doing a great many things in their churches and communities that doesn’t make the TV.  And to these people I am deeply indebted and extremely proud.

Now, I know for me personally, when I am found agreeing with the media about the Christian stereotype, it is not because I’m ashamed of what that latter group believes and lives, or that I find it easier to perpetuate the media’s skewed perceptions.   But, rather, it is my agreement that the former group IS fraudulent and in many ways destructive.   I want people to see through that type of commitment anyway.

Which brings me to the second point . . . 2) I often spend a great deal of time criticizing the former group because I have to convince people today that not all Christians are like that.   To convince them that there are many followers-of-Jesus found in group 2 that are consistent, truthful and worthy of admiration.   It’s why I often don’t even use the name “Christian” for myself anymore (because it is culturally associated with CC), but use something else, such as “follower-of-Christ.”

My thought is that many people our age have noticed this difference as well.  Now, no doubt there are some that simply want to hide from difficulty, as you suggest, and it is easier for them to agree with mainstream thoughts about Christians.  And shame on them.

But a great deal more may simply be trying to make the point that Christianity is not a cultural garment to be worn when convenient, but is a life-altering commitment that invades every moment of your life.   It may be that this language we hear is an attempt at making that distinction in post-Christian culture that thinks they’ve heard everything there is to know about Jesus already—even though they probably haven’t.

Can it go overboard?  Probably.  I think it is a tough line to walk.   You are trying to build credibility, while still showing the good that exists in the bride of Christ.   Maybe I don’t always walk it correctly myself.  But, I really do try hard.   And I’m sure people of both good and bad motives go overboard in this area and that is regrettable.

At any rate, while not all helpful or purely motivated, some of what I hear today actually gives me hope that things can be better, not worse.

Ok.  Long enough for email #2.   See you got me all thinking today, when I should be working!  LOL.

Grace and peace,

SEATTLE