You may not realize, but part of my letter of agreement at St. Nicholas requires me to take 2 weeks of continuing education a year. I take this pretty seriously as I think it’s important to learn new things and stay fresh. It’s also a lot of fun going to conferences and events. Earlier this year, I attended a conference called CREDO which you may remember which is about clergy wellbeing. This week, I’m at Kanuga for Princeton Seminary’s Forum on Youth Ministry. Princeton puts on two of these conferences each year, and I have attended four of them over the course of the last 6 years.

Princeton has an Institute for Youth Ministry. Lest you think it’s all about how to put a new twist on “Capture the Flag” or how to make lock-ins awesome, Princeton is the only seminary I know of that is doing really good theological work in the area of youth ministry. Not only that, but the work that’s coming out of Princeton by really fabulous theologians has implications for the Church as a whole.

Since I am given the honor of attending such great continuing education offerings, I thought I would share the classes, lectures, and ideas I am experiencing while I’m here. Maybe these will spark some interest at St. Nicholas and will be opportunities for us to explore deeper. These are the things I picked up and they address many different topics, so feel free to read the things that jump out at you.

Sermon #1: Pam Driesell
The conference started with worship, and a great sermon by Pam Driesell, a Presbyterian pastor in Athens, Georgia. The whole conference is shaped around the idea of “Hope,” so her sermon kicked us off with highlighting the difference between “optimism” and “hope.” Optimism suggests that one looks at things on the bright side only, and ignoring completely the full reality of life. She gave the example of a woman who had lost her mother to cancer, then found that her husband had been diagnosed. While her family was being optimistic, “hoping” for the best, she was being realistic that he might not make it. However, that didn’t quell her hope, her true Christian hope, that they would make it through all of it, that God would care for them in the midst of that. Her hope was in God, not just a fanciful dream that everything was OK. Optimism looks at things half full only. Hope looks at the whole cup and knows that God is in the midst of it.

Extended Seminar: The God-Hungry Imagination, Sarah Arthur
At the Forum, you sign up for one extended seminar which is an hour and 15 minutes each day, and then several 1 1/2 hour electives. My extended seminar was on engaging imagination within the congregation. In the first session, Sarah talked about how stories like the Lord of the Rings saga and the Chronicles of Narnia series have been gateways for people into Christianity because they were intended to be Christian allegory. In the same way, she is inviting us to using our imagination through stories (both our own stories and fantasy) to share our faith.

In the second session, Sarah talked about the Bible as story. She presented the idea that what if, instead of expecting our children to recite whatever moral or idea they learn in Sunday School, that we expect them to learn the actual stories of the Bible and invite them to wonder about the ideas therein. There’s a significant difference there. One way imparts certain knowledge to children, whereas inviting them into the stories themselves and allowing them to live in the world of the story not only teaches them the story, but awakens their imagination about what’s going on in the story. Programs like Godly Play do this. It made me think how our congregation might enjoy a weekend with a Biblical Storyteller.

The third session was on worship as story. This is something that Episcopalians are really good at, and so Sarah didn’t explain anything really new to me. She explained how liturgy tells a story, and not just the songs and Scripture readings we choose. Our buildings, our worship space, the structure of our church calendar, our windows, and pretty much everything in our churches tell a story. She encouraged us all to look for ways to use liturgy to tell God’s story and inspire people to worship. The worshipping community is a “narratable world” into which we are invited. It’s a play in progress, but there are no mere spectators. Finally, she encouraged all youth ministers to serve as bards, people who are speech-weavers, keepers of the community’s stories, prophets, improvisers, and trainers of storytellers.

Elective A: Congregations as Greenhouses of Hope, Dr. Jeffrey Tribble
Dr. Tribble, from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, invited us to see congregations as a greenhouse, a place of warmth, nurturing, and growth. In order to best do this, a congregation must be willing to share with each other intergenerationally. He painted the image of a relay race, and how when a baton is being passed, there is a space when both runners are running together, side-by-side. Then the baton is passed. This is an interesting concept to think about when we consider how we share our faith and our traditions, not only from old to young, but also from person to person within ministries.

Lecture #1: Rodger Nishioka
Rodger Nishioka is a practical theologian also at Columbia Seminary in Decatur. He spoke about secular hope vs. biblical hope. The word hope in the Bible, in both Hebrew and Greek, is better translated as trust or certitude, a knowledge of God’s mercies. Drawing upon the work of theologian Jurgen Moltmann, Rodger suggested that we not only hope in God, but we are hope in God. We embody God’s hope in the world today. Hope is not just a future reality, not just in eschatology (study of the end times), but hope is grounded in all of Christ’s life, meaning the past, and Christ’s life today, meaning the present. Hope is the present coming of Christ. Christ won’t just come out of heaven in some distant future, but also out of the earth, within each of us. That is hope.

Lecture #2: Kenda Creasy Dean
Along the same thread that Rodger spoke on, Kenda Creasy Dean, a huge name in the academic world of youth ministry and a professor at Princeton Seminary, talked about eschatology not being about predicting the future, but it’s about freeing us from anxiety about the future. She used the disciples watching Jesus ascend back to heaven after the resurrection, and how the angels tell them to stop looking up toward heaven, but remember to look around at God’s work around them. In all the times the disciples get anxious about the future, Jesus tells them not to fear, not to worry. This means that we don’t have to be anxious Christians, always worried about when Christ is coming back and who’s saved and who’s not. If we truly believe that “Christ will come again,” like we say in the Eucharistic Prayer, then we must act like we believe that the Kingdom is at hand, which may make us do surprising things. So she suggested that in order to exercise that “eschatalogical imagination,” we must play (being playful, laughing, joyful), pray (having ongoing conversation with God), stay (be consistent in being with each other), and be clay (allow ourselves to be malleable and creative). She used the example of a group called Improv Everywhere, a secular group who reimagines life. Google them. In other words, Kenda says living like Jesus is going to be the only way that gets people to stop looking “up at heaven” and start looking around at the Kingdom of God.

Elective B: Spicing Up Sunday School, Mark DeVries
Mark is one of my favorite workshop leaders and authors. I’ve taken one of his classes almost every forum. In this one he talked about things that don’t work in Sunday School. He encouraged us to be creative and begin thinking of new ways to engage kids. He suggested that having a template for Sunday School is good, but to change up the resources within the template to make things fresh for kids. Therefore, you can have a lectionary based Sunday School (template), but changing up the resources like art, drama, games, and such keep kids engaged. He invited us to use “the hook” (something that draws kids in), “the book” (making Scripture approachable and memorable for kids), and “the took” (something for the kids to take away, both tangible and intangible).

Elective C: Practical Theology of Short Term Missions, Drew Dyson
Drew is a PhD student at Princeton who suggested that maybe the way churches do short term missions aren’t the best for the groups who go and the people to whom they serve. He challenged the empirical idea that says that we go to help others because we have something they don’t (money, resources, etc.). Instead, he suggested that churches refrain from bouncing from location to location in missions and instead develop an ongoing relationship with a community and do mutual missions together. The goal is to become a missional church so that we do all ministry through the eyes of mission. We have to integrate our understanding of mission not only in “going and doing,” but in dialogue with others in our local community.

Sermon #2: Pam Driesell
This one was really good for me to hear and would have been a good one for┬ámany of you to hear. Pam talked about bridging the gap between hope and suffering. Like I’ve preached before, we can’t move too quickly to grace in the midst of suffering. Being optimistic isn’t helpful and it diminishes the pain that one feels. People who are suffering don’t want to hear that “everything will be OK” because for them, in that moment, God is nowhere to be found. Pam reminded me of the biblical laments from Psalms. “How long, O Lord…” In fact, she said something like 63 of the 150 Psalms are laments. Lamenting is a way for us to be honest about our feelings, acknowledging that God did not feel present in our time of need. Jesus did this, even, on the cross when he said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The laments offer us a way to be honest with God so that we might move towards hope. Laments in Psalms include protests against God, protests against self, and protests against others. They demand for God to help, they call God out. They don’t let God off the hook with pithy Christian platitudes. Eventually, Pam suggests, the laments get to praise, hope, and singing, but not too soon. Really lamenting offers us a way to later awaken hope.

Lecture #3: Rodger Nishioka
In the last lecture, Rodger focused on “Hope as Cruciform.” Drawing on some of the things Pam talked about in her sermon, Rodger did a great job of tying theology into the connection between suffering and hope. He said in the midst of suffering, one becomes clear-eyed to hope. He spoke about two sources of despair: 1. human arrogance, or the idea that one is in control of one’s own destiny, and 2. resignation, or the idea that one is not in control and subject to the whims of fate. For one to have hope, therefore, we must have a developed theology of the crucifixion. This is not easy for many Protestants, who want to gloss over Good Friday in order to get to Easter. We want to focus on the resurrection and hide our eyes from the gruesomeness of the Cross. Rodger drew heavily on the work of Jurgen Moltmann again, offering a third view of the Cross, one being that the purpose of the Cross is hope that Christ died for the sins of the world (atonement), and another being that the cross gives hope because its true meaning is found in the resurrection. Moltmann says the Cross gives hope because God is revealed in Christ’s suffering and abandonment. It’s in the actual suffering where we find the hope of God. There is no suffering that isn’t God’s suffering. He quoted Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggeman who said when those who are suffering cry out to God, hope is awakened. However, we have to give voice to our suffering. We can do this by remembering to pray by lamenting.

After the lecture, I was curious about Moltmann’s concept of hell. Rodger explained that for Moltmann, hell is not a physical reality, but a spiritual one, a reality that is absent of God. Therefore, people can be “in hell” in the here and now, and that is a more realistic conception than the “hell” of afterlife. So for Moltmann, hell is absence of God, and our not realizing that God is actually there.

My last two electives were not as good as the previous ones. One was called the Purpose & Power of Looking Backward, which I just didn’t get. The workshop leaders were a little inexperienced and I wasn’t sure what the point was. The last elective was on baptism and vocation, which was interesting, but it was my very last class, and I had to get on the road to get to Atlanta for Annual Council, so I left a little early.

So once again, the Princeton Forum, while intended for youth ministers, proved to be just as applicable for rectors; at least this rector. I’m thankful for the opportunity to attend conferences like these, and I hope my thoughts on what I learned were thought-provoking to you too.