Noah and God’s Not Dead: Are We Having a Modern Argument in a Postmodern World?

Last week, I saw two movies: Noah and God’s Not Dead. Over the past few weeks, both of these movies have been widely discussed in conservative, evangelical Christian circles—but for opposite reasons.

The film Noah, directed by the controversial Darren Aronofsky, was met with a flood-like torrent of backlash from the Christian community. Many have criticized this movie for being unbiblical and anti-human. Others have complained that Aronofsky unfairly portrayed the Old Testament hero Noah as a crazed maniac. Still more have lamented that the story never mentions “God” (in the movie, the characters refer to God as “The Creator”). (For a fun spoof of all this backlash, see Jon Stewart’s satirical response.)

On the other hand, God’s Not Dead, produced by the Christian film company Pure Flix Entertainment, received an outpouring of praise and support from the evangelical Christian community. This movie had a lot going for it: cameo appearances from the popular Christian band The Newsboys and from evangelical media-darlings Willie and Korie Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame; both Dean Cain (think Superman) and Kevin Sorbo (think Hercules) in starring roles; and finally, a catchy tagline: “What do you believe?”

God’s Not Dead follows the story of Josh Wheaton, a college freshman enrolled in a philosophy class where the professor is a staunch and avid atheist. For their first assignment, everyone in the class has to declare in writing that God is dead. Josh, a Christian, refuses to participate in this assignment and instead is given the challenge to prove to the class that God is not dead. Over three class sessions, he brings up traditional scientific and philosophical arguments to prove the existence of God. He is met with ridicule and setback on every side: from his overbearing girlfriend to his jerk professor. In the end (spoiler alert!), the professor does eventually accept the existence of God and becomes a Christian.

Honestly, if you take away the overacting and unfinished plotlines (Whatever happened to Dean Cain’s character? Was Amy healed of her cancer? Did the pastors ever make it Disneyworld?!?), it wasn’t a bad movie. It had a great message of “stand up for your faith, no matter the consequences.”

But I wonder, is this movie trying to have a modern argument in a postmodern world?

Many have accepted the premise that we have entered into a time known as “postmodernism.” In contrast to the reason and logic of the Enlightenment and the modern age, people today (particularly in the younger generations) are guided by relativism and a rejection of absolutes. (For a brief explanation of postmodernism, see PBS’s helpful definition.)

Unlike the professor in God’s Not Dead, in our postmodern world, most people feel no need to prove or disprove God’s existence. Today, people generally don’t mind what or how you believe. “You think what you want, and I’ll think what I want. You believe what you want, and I’ll believe what I want.” Those in this mindset aren’t going to be convinced of God’s existence by apologetics or arguments. Frankly, they just don’t care.

Instead, postmoderns place a high value on stories and narrative. They are more responsive to the narratives of God’s Story and the story of my own Christian journey, and are actually turned-off by well-constructed arguments or a presentation of the Four Spiritual Laws. But in God’s Not Dead, these narratives and stories are virtually non-existent. I’m curious, how did Josh become a Christian in the first place? Why is Amy so antagonistic towards Christianity? How did Mina respond to Radisson’s atheism when she was his student? How did Ayisha initially encounter Christ and what gave her the strength to secretly live out her faith in a Muslim household? Stories like these are what draw postmoderns into conversations about God and Christianity, not scientific explanations of how God created the universe.

Noah, on the other hand, captures and expounds on a beautiful and confusing story about a man and his trust in the Creator. As he does his best to follow after God, Noah’s story often becomes muddled and chaotic, much like most of our own stories. His story encapsulates both the pain of loss and the beauty of new life. His story is real and true and profound. His story intrigues me much more than Josh Wheaton’s classroom arguments, and I’m guessing that many of my postmodern friends feel the same way. Is this film entirely biblically accurate? Not really. But Noah opens the door to conversations, while God’s Not Dead shuts that same door with a definitive and resounding bang: “No, God’s not dead. The Bible says it, I believe it, end of story.”

Let’s not shut the door. Let’s not end the story. Let’s keep the conversations going. Our postmodern friends need us to. Just like the story of Noah, these conversations may often be uncomfortable and confusing. There may even be times where we need to humbly admit, “I don’t know.”

In the end, whether you go see Noah or God’s Not Dead this week, I ask that you keep these words in mind from fellow blogger Jonathan Haefs, “The beauty…of all Bible based films, no matter their inaccuracies, is that they open doors to conversations to which people are typically closed off.” May you be blessed in and through those conversations!

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A Pastor’s Plea to Parents

Dear parents of teens,

I need your help. As a youth pastor, the main purpose of my job is to point teens toward Jesus. I am doing my best to lead them into God’s presence and help form them into genuine followers of Christ. But I cannot do this all on my own. So I am asking for your help and your support.

First of all, I only see your students for a couple of hours each week. And during that precious time, I am trying to do a whole bunch of things: form relationships with each of the students, facilitate healthy bonding between the students, present important information and announcements about upcoming events, lead them into God’s presence through prayer and Scripture reading, and cultivate active discussion on God and His Word. That is a lot to cram into one hour on Wednesday nights!

Because of this, I need you to continue having these types of conversations about God and His Word with your son or daughter throughout the week. This can be done in the car on the way to school or games. This can be done around the breakfast or dinner table. This can even be done through the frequent text messages you are probably exchanging. No matter how busy your child is or how little you see them, I guarantee that you have way more interaction with them than I do as their youth pastor. You influence your teen’s life more than you probably realize. So I am asking for your help to spark these discussions about God and living for Him with your teenaged sons and daughters. (For resources on having these types of conversations, I highly recommend Fuller Youth Institute’s website at www.stickyfaith.org/parents.) Always remember that (for better or for worse!) you are the primary Christian model in their lives.

Secondly, I need you to communicate with me. This is huge. I have many teens that I am trying to look out for, and if something is going on with one of them, it might slip past my notice. If there is anything that I should be aware of, please notify me. I often won’t know what is going on unless you tell me! Please let me know how I can be a resource to you or your student. I am happy to help in any way possible, even if it just means being a listening ear.

But this communication is also really important when it comes to event planning. It would greatly help me if you or your student lets me know if they will be able to make it to a certain activity (I usually have sign-up sheets well in advance.) I need to have an accurate head-count when I am planning food, transportation, and adult sponsors. Additionally, please communicate to me whether or not your student needs a ride to church or any other youth activity. I recognize that many of my teens can’t drive, and I am always more than happy to pick up a student or arrange transportation for them as long as I have adequate prior notice. It would be awesome if you could drop them off or pick them up (This allows time to have those great Godly conversations I mentioned above!), but if you are unable to do so, please let me know.

I always try to do my part to communicate to you the details about a particular event—date, times, cost, etc.—and you can always contact me if you have any questions or concerns. (I’m available through phone, email, text message, Facebook, Twitter, smoke signal—take your pick!) Essentially, I would love to open the doors for our communication and keep them wide open!

Third, I need your support. The events I plan are rarely there just to “fill the calendar” or provide students with something to do. They almost always have a deeper meaning: They are meant to connect them to God or to one another. They are there to open their eyes to the broken and hurting world around them. They are there to give them a chance to serve others. They are there to help them grow in their relationship with Christ. I know that your time is precious and that you have a lot going on. Because of this, I try very hard not to crowd your week with pointless and meaningless activities. So when I schedule something, please trust that it is important for your child’s spiritual growth. Please support me by advocating for these events to your teenagers and encouraging them to attend.

Finally, I am asking for your prayers. I love your teenagers and am doing the best I can to direct their lives toward Christ. As I lift them up in prayer, I would ask that you do the same for me. As I said before, I can’t do all this on my own; I need both your help and–more importantly–God’s help! In return, I will constantly be praying for you and your students.

In conclusion, my question to you is this: Do you want your teenager just to turn out to be a nice person, a good citizen, and a productive member of society? If so, then you probably only need to send him to church once a week. You really shouldn’t bother talking about God, the Bible, or your own Christian walk. If raising a productive member of society is your only goal, then you could most likely put athletics and other extracurricular activities ahead of church and youth events.

But if you want your teen to fall in love with Jesus and grow more into His likeness each and every day, then I need your help. Together, we can place the lives of the teenagers we both love into God’s hands as we model for them what it looks like to truly follow after Christ.

Thank you for being an awesome and loving parent to your teenagers!

Blessings,

Pastor Shannon

When did underage drinking become “ok”?

When did underage drinking become “ok”?

Most mornings, as I’m drinking my coffee or getting ready for the day, I tune into the Today Show’s “Today’s Take” segment. This is a typically light-hearted, talk-show-format segment that comments on top headlines of the day. I watch this segment because I like the hosts (Willie, Al, and Natalie) and they usually have good perspectives on the popular news stories. The past two days during this segment, there have been two different stories regarding teenage drinking.

On Wednesday, the story was about parents that caught their two teenage daughters (ages 15 and 16) throwing a party (apparently one of several over the course of three days) while they were out of town. The parents’ response? They called the cops and had their daughters arrested. To me, that makes sense. Their kids broke the law and therefore had to face the consequences of their actions. I’m not sure how I would have responded in their situation or if I would have done the same thing, but I completely understand and support these two parents’ decision. However, the hosts of Today’s Take called this “extreme parenting” and “tough love taken to the next level.” They went on to emphatically exclaim that they would never call the cops on their kids. Overall, they were seemingly outraged and appalled that these two parents would do such a thing. They claimed that these kids would “never be right after this” experience.

Today, the story was about a Maryland politician that was caught at a party where underage drinking was happening. (His son was one of the students at this “senior beach week” organized by their parents.) The hosts acknowledged that as a politician running for the governor of his state, he probably shouldn’t have been condoning the teen’s illegal actions. But what bothered me about this story is that the parents of these students knowingly allowed their children to drink. They had posted “rules” regarding their drinking such as “You are not allowed to drink and drive,” and “You can’t drink ‘hard’ alcohol.” There were even two parents there each night of the week “chaperoning” the parties. In doing these things, they were condoning their kids’ drinking.

I don’t know about anyone else, but this nonchalant attitude toward teenage drinking is very disturbing to me. When did teenage drinking become so commonplace? When did it become “ok”? The last time I checked, it was still illegal to furnish alcohol to minors. (I recognize that some states, including Oklahoma, make exceptions for parent-supervised parties—however this usually does not include exceptions for minors under the age of 18.) So when did this blatant disregard for the law become the norm?

Perhaps I was too sheltered as a teenager. I went to a private, Christian school, and while I knew that some of my peers drank, it wasn’t something that I ever had a desire to involve myself in. Perhaps I am too naïve in thinking that teenagers can have some self-control and not give in to the pressures of their peers. Perhaps this is something that has been going on for years and I should be happy that at least parents are aware of their kids’ drinking and are taking steps to minimize any possible damage.

But I tend to have a little more hope in the teenagers I minister to. I believe they can stand strong against the culture of their generation. I think they should have some wisdom in choosing their friends and making decisions about what kind of parties they attend. I prefer to challenge them to a higher standard of living, and not just “accept” that they are going to fail by giving into the temptation to drink.

Let me say that this isn’t an article about whether drinking itself is wrong or a “sin.” I’m not trying to open up that hot-topic discussion.

But I do know what is wrong: willingly and belligerently disrespecting the law of the land. Romans 13:1-2 says, “Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished.” For me, it can’t get any clearer than that.

I also know that statistics show that those who wait until they are 21 to drink have far less problems with drunk driving, binge drinking, and alcoholism. For example, “teens that begin drinking before age 15 are 4 times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who wait until they are 21.” Also, “Teens get drunk twice as fast as adults, but have more trouble knowing when to stop. Teens naturally overdo it and binge more often than adults.” I also know that “When teens feel they have their parents’ approval to drink, they do it more and more often when they are not with their parents.

So here is my message to teens: If you are under the legal drinking age, you shouldn’t drink. That’s the bottom line. When you turn 21, we can open up the drinking conversation, but not a day sooner than that. Or if by chance the legal drinking age in our country gets lowered, we can also talk then.

In the meantime, I truly believe that you can control yourselves and resist the pressures of your friends. I believe that you can do better than the low standards that society sets for you. I believe that God can help you stand strong even in tempting situations. I have faith in you and believe you can rise to the challenge to refrain from drinking, even as a teenager.

11 Things I’ve Learned from Social Media: Part 2

As I started sharing in my last post, over the past few years since social media has come into mainstream American culture, there are a few lessons I have learned along the way. Let me continue:

 

6. Drama Down.

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  • When I was a junior in college, Facebook opened up its ranks to anyone 13 or old. Since then, it has been a breeding ground for high school drama (or adults engaging in high school level drama).
  • As I mentioned in my last post, I am constantly amazed by the fact that people post things online that they would never say in real life. Most of these petty, drama-filled online back-and-forth exchanges are conversations that should be done in person–or not at all. Once you post something online, it can never be taken back.
  • You can be the bigger person. If someone tries to start something with you, simply ignore them. Do not sink down to their level by taking the bait.
  • Proverbs 10.19–“Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth [or keyboard] shut.”

 

7. Parents know best.

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  • As I was speaking to a group of teenagers, this point was more geared to their age level.
  • Even if you disagree with parents, you still need to respect them. Respect their age limits on having a Facebook account. Respect their time limits about how many hours a day you spend on the internet. Respect their restrictions about who you can friend or follow. In the end, they are only trying to look out for you.
  • Again and again throughout Proverbs, the author speaks of obeying your parents and listening to their instructions. This is no less true in the 21st Century.

 

8. Think before you post.

  • This is not just a scare tactic: everything you post online is both permanent and searchable. You can never really, truly “delete” something once it has been posted or sent. (Yes, this even includes Snapchat!)
  • You wouldn’t want something you have posted online to come back to haunt you when you are applying for a job, scholarships, or college. (Just ask Marshall aka “Beercules”)
  • Proverbs 13:16 is a good rule of thumb: “Wise people think before they act; fools don’t–and even brag about their foolishness.” (I’m sure you can agree with this last statement if you have ever seen somebody post a comment along the lines of, “I got soooo drunk last night!”)

 

9. Get a Life.

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  • Talk to people in real life, not just over social media.
  • One of the biggest dangers of social media or texting is that it creates a false sense of closeness: you feel like you know a person really well because you see pictures of their kids, get updates on their life, or know where they like to eat. But these impersonal interactions are a poor substitute for actually talking with someone face-to-face.
  • Hebrews 10:25 instructs believers to continue meeting together for the purpose of fellowship and encouragement.

 

10. Keep it Positive.

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  • Just like in “real” life, we should use our words to build people up, not tear others down.
  • I cannot stand it when someone is being overly emotional or melodramatic online. Or there are others that constantly complain via social media outlets. No one wants to read that kind of stuff!
  • It is important to remember that tone of voice does not come across well online or in a text message. What you meant to be sarcastic or funny often ends up sounding mean or rude.
  • Proverbs 12:18 contrasts people that use cutting remarks against those whose words bring healing. Which would you rather offer online? Pain or healing?

 

11. WWJF-What Would Jesus Facebook?

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  • At the risk of sounding cliche or cheesy, asking yourself “would Jesus do this?” before you post or view something online is a great thing to do.
  • In the end, it all boils down to this: Is the image of yourself that you are portraying online an image that reflects the character of Christ?
  • Philippians 2:3-5–“Don’t  be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.”

 

Thanks for reading!

11 Things I’ve Learned from Social Media: Part 1

For the past few weeks in my youth group, we have been working through a series of lessons that I called “Christ + Culture.” During this time, we dug into the question, “How should Christians interact with the culture around them?” Obviously, one of the biggest aspects of American youth culture in 2013 is the prevalent use of social media through networks such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram–among many others.

As I explained to my teens (many of whom were still in early elementary school when Mark Zuckerberg first came on the scene), I have had the privilege to watch the expansion of social media. When I was in high school, the big thing was MySpace (not the cool, updated version either). When I first joined Facebook, you still had to have a .edu email address. Through the years since the arise of social media, I have learned a few lessons in life. All of these lessons are humorous, some involve common sense, and many are based on Biblical truths.

 

1. You’re So Vain: How many selfies are too many selfies?

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  • There is nothing wrong with the occasional (appropriate) self-portrait. I have been guilty of wanting to show off a new outfit or haircut to my (not-so) many social media followers. But there comes a point when it can just be too much.
  • The definition of vain is “having an excessively high opinion of one’s appearance, abilities, or worth.” Although you may not see yourself as vain in posting a new selfie every day, it can come across as “excessive” to your friends.
  • Proverbs 21:4 even puts “proud looks” and “proud thoughts” in the same category as “evil actions”: all of these are sin.

 

2. Facebook: the Time Suck.

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  • It is a myth that you need to be constantly tied to your computer or smart phone. No one is really going to miss you if you put it down for a few hours.
  • I try to make a habit of getting my homework, church work, or house work done before going on Facebook. I also limit the number of times of day that I log on to check my news feed.
  • Ephesians 5:15-16 cautions believers to be wise and careful with their time and to make the most of the time that has been given to us.

 

 

3. Watch Yo Mouth!

  • It never ceases to amaze me how people say things online that they would never say in real life. We should strive to keep our online speech just as clean as our actual speech. More than that, the things we “like,” “share,” or “retweet” are also an expression of our own language use.
  • Plus, people that constantly cuss or use bad language online just look stupid! Do they have nothing better to say?
  • Ephesians 5:4–“Obscene stories, foolish talk, and coarse jokes—these are not for you.”

 

 

4. Safety First!

  • At the risk of sounding like an overprotective parent in the early 2000’s, you really can’t know who you are talking to at the other end of the text message, Facebook chat, or SnapChat. (I think you understand my point if you have ever been “hacked” by a friend or family member.)
  • Just use common sense online. Don’t post that you are home alone. Don’t publish your personal phone number or address if you don’t want people calling you or showing up at your house. And don’t always trust that people are who they say they are.

 

 

5. Don’t be an Insta-Skank.

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  • You’ve seen them before: those girls that post provocative, suggestive pictures on Instagram or Twitter. And who hasn’t heard the cautionary tale of Senator Weiner?
  • My best advice on this subject for girls is this: Don’t ever give guys an excuse to only view you for your body. Show them that you are more than just a hot body or pretty face.
  • I absolutely love Proverbs 11:22–“A beautiful woman who lacks discretion is like a gold ring in a pig’s snout.” Even if you are a beautiful girl, if you don’t use discretion in your online postings, you are just as stupid as the person that puts valuable jewelry on a pig.

 

Part 2, and lessons 6-11 to come later.

FYI (Mrs. Hall)

I’m sure you’ve probably seen it. Over a dozen of my Facebook friends have shared it in the past two days. It has gone viral in Christian circles and the comments on it are in the thousands. Huffington Post even featured an article on it. Many others have already posted their own reactions, from a highly feminist perspective, to an ironic criticism, to another mom’s viewpoint. But because of all this attention, I cannot refrain any longer. I have to post my own response to the wildly popular post “FYI (if you’re a teenage girl)” by Kim Hall on her blog “Given Breath.” So here it is.

I want to start by truly commending Mrs. Hall’s attempt to be involved in her sons’ online lives. Sadly, many parents today don’t care what their teenagers are viewing online. Furthermore, she really does have some great things to say both to parents of teenagers and to teenage girls themselves. Unfortunately, there were some other things she said that I take great offense with.

First of all, I am extremely glad that Mrs. Hart responded to the overwhelming number of readers criticizing her choice of photos for the blog. Her post, which essentially gets on to young girls for posting scantily-clad pictures of themselves on Instagram, contained two photos of her own sons—shirtless on the beach. In one of these photos, her three teen aged sons were posing in only their swim trunks and flexing their abs and biceps for the camera. Thankfully, the author realized her own double-standard and changed these pictures to more “family friendly” pics of her sons fully clothed. I admire and respect Mrs. Hall’s choice to listen to the advice and counsel of her readers.

While the author’s original poor choice of photos for her blog was one of my biggest problems with this article, it unfortunately was not the only one.

Mrs. Hall writes, “Did you know that once a male sees you in a state of undress, he can’t quickly un-see it?  You don’t want our boys to only think of you in this sexual way, do you? [On a side note, I believe the author’s original choice of words in this paragraph was that once a male sees you in a state of undress, he can’t ever un-see it. I noticed that Mrs. Hall toned down her choice of words, most likely based on her reader’s reactions.]

Now I admit that I am not a teenage guy. I will never know what goes on inside the mind (and bodies) of my male counterparts. I am, however, married to a man who was once a teenage guy. And we both thought that this assessment of teenage guys sets them up for a very low standard of expectation. The author obviously doesn’t think too highly of her sons’ self-control and their ability to shut down those sexualized thoughts of their friends. This statement essentially puts the blame on the girl, rather than on the guy who is fantasizing (aka “lusting”) over her body.

In my opinion, Mrs. Hall’s statement is akin to the false belief that a girl who dresses promiscuously is “asking” to be raped. This type of thinking puts all of the blame on the male, and we are back in the garden all over again with Adam blaming Eve for his choice to eat the forbidden fruit.

Mrs. Hall also writes to those same scantily-clad teenage girls, “And now—big bummer—we have to block your posts.

I don’t know who this mom thinks she’s kidding, but does she believe that she will be able to keep her sons in a protective bubble forever? I’m guessing that the “sexy” posts of their female friends are no worse than what could be seen by turning on the tv, going to the movies, or hanging out at the beach (which they apparently love to do.) Moreover, the actual action of blocking these posts and banning her sons from following their female friends on Facebook only makes their “sexy” pictures more appealing and tantalizing. There is always a draw to that which is considered “taboo.”

Again, I admit that I am not a teenage guy. I further admit that I am not a parent and have not been put in the same position as this mother. However, couldn’t it be more effective to simply address these posts with just a quick comment rather than taking extreme measures and blowing the situation out of proportion?

This reminded me of a time when I was in youth group as a high school student. In my junior year, we did split girls and guys Bible studies on purity. The girls read the book Every Young Woman’s Battle while the boys read Every Young Man’s Battle. The girls had few problems with their book. But the guys, however, ended up in an even more difficult “battle” after reading their book selection. The authors of that book shared several “real life scenarios” where guys could be put in sexual situations. Instead of helping guys out, these “sexualized scenarios” actually caused the young men in the group to fantasize even more! Some of my close guy friends even admitted that after going to this Bible study, their struggles with lust were worse now than they were before reading the book. This book that was supposed to help them was essentially soft porn for their horny minds!

In the same way, by attempting to help her sons in having “these (sometimes awkward) family conversations around the table,” could this mom actually be taking their minds to a place that it would have never gone otherwise?

Finally, the overall tone of Mrs. Hall’s post is somewhat judgmental and accusatory. Unfortunately, many of her sons’ female friends probably do not come from a Christian home. Perhaps they even come from a broken family and may not have been taught appropriate boundaries regarding modesty and online picture posting. Rather than pronouncing a sweeping judgment on these girls and making the exclamation that she has a “zero tolerance, no second chances policy” regarding sexy selfies, perhaps she could take these same girls out for a cup of coffee and politely explain to them—in person—her rules regarding her sons’ social media usage. Perhaps she should take the time to get to know these girls rather than writing passive-aggressive blog posts regarding their online indiscretions. Maybe these girls don’t have a positive female role model or mentor in their lives, and Mrs. Hall could fill a huge void in their lives by being that example.

I know this post is getting entirely too long already, but here is what I would like to say to teenage girls. As a youth pastor, I have the privilege of getting to know some wonderful young ladies, so here is what I want them to know:

First of all, your bodies are beautiful. You should never feel “dirty” or ashamed of how God uniquely created you. Physically, you are changing from a little girl into a young woman. It is natural to want to show off these fantastic new “assets” online. But I assure you that less skin showing is actually more. It is far better to leave something to the imagination rather than flaunting your stuff online. Modest is always hottest.

Secondly, don’t ever, EVER give guys an excuse to only view you as a sexual object. Be it through the words you say, the attitude you portray, or the pictures you post, show the men of our world that they need to respect you for more than just your body.

Third, I hope that your outer beauty will always be overshadowed by your inner beauty. As Peter writes, “Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God.” (1 Peter 3:3-4) This inner beauty comes from a steadfast trust in God and a desire to follow Christ with your whole life.

Finally, I always want to give you a second-chance. And a third-chance. And as many chances as it takes. Even if you mess up on your online postings (or in real life), God is always ready to redeem you with his ever-present grace, and I am always there for you too.

Join me anytime for a cup of coffee if you want to talk more.

Much love,

Shannon

Hope for the New Year

No, it’s not January 1. But ask any youth pastor or teacher, and the New Year actually starts in August with the beginning of school. Here in Enid, today was the first day of school for many students.

Growing up, I always loved the first day of school. It was a day of high hopes and great expectations. I loved picking out my first-day outfit from my new school clothing wardrobe. I loved seeing my friends and classmates for the first time since the previous school year. I loved opening up the packages on new school supplies and savoring the smell of brand new textbooks. I loved learning. For me, I imagined the beginning of a new school year as a blank slate, just waiting to be filled. (I admit, perhaps I am just a nerd.)

But I have come to the realization that not all students share my excitement over the first day of school. For many, it is not a day of excitement and anticipation; instead, it is a day of dread and anxiety.

For these students, school is not the safe haven that it was for me. Not that I had the perfect schooling experience, but students now live in a day where they fear both shootings from random strangers and bullying from people claiming to be their “friends.”

For other students, learning does not come as easy as it did for me. Perhaps they struggle with learning disabilities or behavioral disorders. Perhaps they simply have to study more than the average student. Perhaps they do not test well. Perhaps they are simply too afraid to ask for help from their teacher when they do not understand a certain concept. Whatever the reasons, I do recognize that school does not come naturally for every student.

Don’t misunderstand me. These are all valid reasons for a student to dislike school or to fear that first day of school. But I do believe that having the right attitude goes a long way.

Instead of giving in to boredom during those long class lectures, try to think of each classroom discussion as something new to learn and discover.

Instead of dreading the inevitable homework and tests, embrace them as a challenge waiting to be overcome, a chance to prove what you are made of.

Instead of viewing your teachers as cold and distant (and I realize, some of them truly are cold and distant!), see them as mentors that have gone before you and have something to offer you on your own journey. And also, cut them a little slack; they have one of the hardest jobs in our society and get paid next to nothing to do it. They are people too!

Instead of getting overwhelmed and giving up when you don’t understand something, take the leap of faith and ask for the help you need: from your friend, your teacher, your counselor, your parents, your youth pastor.

Most importantly, instead of believing that school is only a pointless task that must be overcome, see yourself as working for the Lord. Maybe you feel like a “slave” to school. In writing to actual slaves, Paul says these words:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters [i.e., teachers] in everything you do. Try to please them all the time, not just when they are watching you. Serve them sincerely because of your reverent fear of the Lord. Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people.” (Colossians 3:22-23, NLT)

As crazy as it sounds, that verse got me through many boring hours of homework, frustrating group projects, and seemingly pointless tests and assignments. And if all else fails, remember that this too shall pass. Only 174 more days of school left to go before summer break!

Our Journey to Enid

10/11/12

I have a church interview with Enid First Nazarene tonight. It’s hard to tell how I’m feeling. I’m not exactly nervous or scared. I’m somewhat excited, but not entirely hopeful that this will work out. Is it the right time to leave Shawnee [Church of the Nazarene]? ….Am I ready to be a youth pastor full-time? …So many questions! But, as my devotions today reminded me, God is in control. No matter what, He is still the One in charge.

It’s hard to believe that I wrote these words in my journal nine months ago. Just two and a half months after that, Randy and I were all set to move to Enid. During that time, God truly did show that He was the One in control of our lives. It was not an easy decision to leave the place that had been our home for the past six years, but God made it very clear to us that this was the road He wanted us to take. Now in our seventh month in Oklahoma, Randy and I thought it was time that we explained how this all came about…

I’ve always had the strong belief that you should keep walking through doors until God closes them. When Randy and I agreed to meet with Bruce and Sandy at the Cheesecake Factory in Kansas City, we did so with the understanding that we didn’t want to close the door on any opportunities until God told us to. It was with this same belief that we accepted their invitation to visit Enid a few weeks later. Even on the drive down to Enid for that initial visit, we still did not believe that this was the path God had for us. We liked our lives in Kansas City! We were comfortable there. But God has an uncanny way of getting you out of your comfort zone.

In our minds, we had certain expectations that needed to be met before we could practically consider the possibility of taking the position in Enid. What would Randy do for a job down there? Would I be able to finish my Master’s degree? Would the salary be comparable to our current financial position? How would we get out of our lease in Kansas City? Where would we even live in Enid?

Despite these concerns, we could not deny the warm reception we received from the people of Enid First Nazarene. On just one Sunday morning visit, they embraced us with open arms and showed us genuine hospitality. By the end of the visit, Pastor Bruce and his wife Sandy were ready for us to pack our bags and move to Enid. But we still had a lot of obstacles to overcome.

First, would I be able to complete my Master’s degree through NTS living in a different state? Education was a high priority for me, and I wanted to stay on course to graduate within a couple of semesters. After discussing my options with the school’s registrar, it turned out that I could finish up my last few classes through online or video conferencing courses. This first barrier had already been toppled.

Next, was the salary going to be what we needed to consider a move? We had crunched the numbers and knew what we would need to live on. In ministry, it is not about the money, but this was still a practical concern that needed to be met. Surprisingly enough, the number we had in mind was exactly what the church was offering to pay me!

The next problem was living arrangements. The good news was that the church owned a parsonage next door that we would be able to utilize. We could move in as soon as we were ready! The bad news was that we still had six months left on our current apartment’s lease in Kansas. We could not afford to pay out those six months, so we needed a way out of our lease without being penalized. Through a lot of prayer and little bit of slick maneuvering, we were able to get out of our contract with just two months’ notice. This could put us in Enid by the first week in January.

But by far the biggest concern was Randy’s job situation. As a web developer, what career options were available for him in Enid? He had previously been employed by various agencies in the Kansas City area, but no such company currently existed in Enid. For a long time, he had desired to start his own agency. However, he figured this was a long-term goal somewhere further down the road. As it turns out, moving to Enid would be the perfect time to start such an endeavor. Since there were no other web developers in the area, the market was ripe for him to establish himself. Although it was a leap of faith, we felt that this could be the answer to our prayers regarding Randy’s employment in Enid.

Every obstacle that we threw in God’s way, He was able to overcome. Less than a week after our visit to Enid, God had convinced us that He was calling us there. Of course, we still had some concerns, but we knew that God was leading us to Enid and that He was going to take care of us along the way. The only thing left was for us to answer His call.

And so, on January 2, 2013, we packed up our lives into a U-Haul truck, said tearful “see you laters” to our friends in Kansas, and made the trek to Enid, America. And as we’ve come to realize since then, there’s no better place to be than living within God’s will.

Oklahoma: Our New Home

Circumcision and Animal Sacrifices: Just Another Day in Youth Ministry

For our youth group’s summer sessions, I have been leading a series entitled “Campfire Stories.” In essence, we are simply retelling the stories of Israel’s patriarchs the way that they were told for many years: around a campfire, passed down from generation to generation.

But in going straight through the book of Genesis, nothing is left out. Every gruesome, gory, strange, and provocative story contained in these chapters is discussed: from Abram essentially giving his wife into prostitution in Egypt (Genesis 12:11-16) to the instatement of circumcision (Genesis 17:9-14) to Lot’s daughters raping their father (Genesis 19:30-38). (Yes, I am that crazy youth pastor discussing these topics with junior high students.) It is often hard to grasp these types of stories, let alone find the redemptive value or personal application in them. But in seeking to better understand these difficult passages, I have learned a great deal from investigating their historical and cultural context.

Take circumcision, for example. How can we possibly gain some sort of spiritual insight from the practice of cutting off part of the male foreskin? Although I’d long thought otherwise, circumcision itself wasn’t an unusual practice for ancient Middle Eastern tribes; it wasn’t something unique to the Israelite people. However, most of the neighboring tribes would use circumcision as a rite of passage for boys about to enter into adulthood. It was the mark that they had become “men” and were now officially accepted into the tribe. However, Israelite boys were circumcised as infants only eight days old. Essentially, they grew up always knowing and believing that they were “part of the tribe.” They never understood a time when they were not a part of the People of God. Now that’s cool, and something that Horace Bushnell would definitely approve of.*

But one of my favorite stories that we have discussed so far is the account of the bloody animal sacrifice in Genesis 15. In this passage, God is establishing his covenant with Abram when the Israelite patriarch asks for a “sign” or confirmation of this pact. So God instructs Abram to gather a heifer, a ram, and a goat, and cut them in half length-wise. If that isn’t gross enough, Abram then placed each animal’s carcass halves next to each other, forming a trail or pathway of blood in the middle.

Gross.

Gross. (Image from bricktestament.com)

Now, this all seems very strange to me as an American living in the 21st Century. But this type of ritual sacrifice was actually very common in Abram’s day. It was a solemn agreement between two parties: the most serious pact that could be established. Each party would walk down the pathway formed by the carcass halves. In essence, they were each agreeing that if they did not uphold their part of the covenant, what was done to these animals could be done to them.

At this point in the story, Abram is probably freaking out. He perhaps is regretting his request to God for a “sign” of their covenant. He knows what he is about to agree to. As he is looking upon the bloody, gory animal carcasses, he is imaging his own body cut in half and his own blood spilled on the ground. So, what does he do? He takes a nap. Rather, he “fell into a deep sleep, and a terrifying darkness came down over him” (Genesis 15:12, NLT). In this dreamlike state, Yahweh again appears to Abram in a vision and reaffirms his promise to give the land of Canaan to Abram’s descendants.

Darkness then fell over the land. It was time to finish the ritual covenant and walk through the animal blood. Traditionally, the more important party (God, in this case) would walk through first. In the distance, Abram sees a smoking firepot—Yahweh’s symbolic representation of himself. The firepot passes between the animal carcasses, indicating God’s commitment to the covenant. Just as Abram is preparing to finish the ceremony and pass through himself, he sees something else approaching in the distance: a flaming torch. Surprisingly, this flaming torch also passes down the bloody trail. God essentially passed through twice: once for himself, and once for Abram. God knew that Abram and his descendants would not be able to uphold their end of the bargain; they were bound to sin and fail and break the covenant. Yet Yahweh took on their responsibility and their burden. And in doing so, God took Abram’s own punishment onto himself. It’s hard to miss the huge significance of this act. As we know, a few thousand years later, this punishment came to pass on God’s own Son, Jesus. Now that’s what I call redemptive value.**

“But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins.” (Isaiah 53:5)

“He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24)

*Horace Bushnell was a 19th Century Christian educator and author who famously believed that children should grow up as Christians, and never know themselves otherwise.

**For a deeper exegesis on Genesis 15, see the article “Abram’s Animal Ceremony in Genesis 15.”

Who doesn’t like free stuff?

As a youth pastor, I am truly blessed that my husband is a professional web developer/designer. Anytime I need youth group marketing advice or help with promotions materials, he is always willing to lend a hand. More importantly, whenever I need something I’ve designed to have that “professional touch,” I can call on his assistance. (If you are interested in checking out more of his professional work, check out RG Creative at discoverrg.com.)

From time to time, I am going to post some of the resources he has created for me in case anyone else is interested in using them. Who doesn’t love free youth ministry stuff, after all?

Today, I am making available two awesome profile sheets: a general Student Profile form and a Parents Roster list. (They are both attached here as PDF files.)

I use the Student Profile when I have new students to the ministry, or need to update contact information for current students. After entering their info into an Excel spreadsheet, I place all of the profiles in a binder. This way, I have all of their personal and contact information stored on my computer, as well as fun tidbits about their favorite foods and bands. This comes in handy especially when I am wanting to take a student out to eat at their favorite restaurant or when I am purchasing snack foods for camp or when I am needing new music for long van rides.

The parent roster list is pretty self explanatory, but I love how the design themes of these two sheets correspond!

Hope you enjoy! I’ll try to have more goodies later!