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Tales of Adventure Blog

Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
with the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.

We ask you to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push back the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

This we ask in the name of our Captain,
Who is Jesus Christ.

 

Filtering by Category: The Calling

Transformation, Transmogrification, or Transfiguration?

Matthew Overton

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One of the things that has happened over the 5 years we have been running our Forge program is that we have gradually gathered around some values that matter to us. Values are often something people tend to confuse with ideals. Many people in the churches that I have worked in have tended to think of values as something along the lines of aspirations. They think about their church or organization and think about what they would like it to be one day. Values aren’t that.

Values are ideas and ethics that already exist within your organization. They are reflexive tendencies that shape the way you shape your programs and relationships within your community/organization. Along with your mission and vision, when clear, values tend to shape what you and your fellow supporters see as inside and outside the scope of who you are. They aren’t so much who you are or what you do, as they are the way you do what you do together. And I don’t think you can just sit down and write them down one day. They tend to emerge from the life of an organization/ministry over time. They emerge from actually doing what you do. I tend to find that we have tripped over a value when we make statements like, “That isn’t who we want to be.” Or, “That feels more like the way we want to go about doing this work.”

Well, it feels like in the last 1.5 years some clear values have started to emerge for our Forge ministry. We have lived enough life together to begin to name some of those values. Perhaps the most key value for us is that we believe that all human transformation happens at the pace of human relationships.

Our ministry has realized over time that our community has plenty of programs. We have lots and lots of places that kids can get services for different kinds of things. We have lots of places in our community where people can get better at things (sports, music, tech, etc.) And while programs do a lot of good, students are often left with the sense that they are a commodity in someone else’s self actualization. What I mean is that each coach, teacher, and minister wants to know that what they do each day as they get out of bed matters. I want to know that my youth ministry matters. The unfortunate side effect of this desire for me to feel like I have meaning is that it creates a temptation to want to make an impact on things and people. This can often reduce teenagers to cogs in our own personal quest for meaning. This is why a music teacher is offended when a kid in my church chooses in my chooses a humanitarian aid trip over music camp and questions her commitment to music. This is why a swim coach lets an athlete know, the moment they get out of the pool (after swimming a record time) that it wasn’t nearly their best. Christians are not (ideally) in the program business or even in the get to heaven business. At our core, we are in the rescue and transformation business.

When I think of why God exists in human relationship with people it is all about a giant, eons long, painstaking, and long suffering RESCUE OPERATION. The whole project of God on our behalf is an effort on the part of God to rescue and restore us. It is not about getting us to somewhere and apparently it isn’t about getting us right or perfect. If that were the case, none of us would be welcome in this project. So, what is it about? It’s about a God who wants to rescue us from ourselves.

So, the question then becomes how are humans rescued? How is it that we come to be changed and shaped? And what does it look like for us to imitate the shape and form of that rescue operation in our own ministries?

Well, I think Christian ministries can take 3 forms.

  1. Transmogrification Ministries

  2. Transformation Ministries

  3. Transfiguration Ministries

The first form of ministry that often happens in many places in our world, not least of which is the church, is transmogrification. My oldest child reads Calvin and Hobbes on a regular basis and one of my favorite cartoons is when Calvin makes a “Transmogrifier” out of a cardboard box. I had always thought it was a made up kid word until I looked it up. It turns out to be transmogrified means to be transformed, but in a kind of humorous, ridiculous, or bizarre way.

Many of our ministries, because they desire to make an impact, can turn people into odd Christian caricatures. They function as bizarre transmogrifiers. You have seen folks like this. People whose ministries or programs so desperately want to demonstrate transformation that they almost force it on people. The people become walking televangelists for this or that. They become so awkward that you begin to wonder if they believe their own story of transformation, or whether is it simply a kind of incantational mantra meant to hypnotize. Transmogrification is the sort of ministry where a quality ministry ideal goes into the machine and something along the lines of a Chinese knockoff product comes out. See below. It looks like what you wanted, but it really isn’t.

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Many Christian ministries produce people like this. Partially this happens because their ministry ideals are so desperately high. Partially this happens because they believe that their ministries exist to “produce” people at all…sometimes even on a mass scale. These are not the ministries we want to create.

A second healthier version of Christian ministry is working for positive human transformation. This is the kind of work that takes hours and hours of relational time. It is the sort of ministry that is patient, loving, and long suffering. It does not exist to make me feel better or more charitable. It does not exist to give one a sense of accomplishment or meaning. It exists to benefit the other person. It does not treat them as an object to be transformed. It honors their agency and autonomy. I don’t believe these relationships are truly co-equal, but they should be highly mutual. In good transformational ministry both parties are transformed!

This sort of transformation requires another human being to engage. To push this back into the realm of the obviously theological, this is why God enters into the world. Human transformation cannot be accomplished, apparently, without flesh on flesh. Sacrifices must be made in order for transformation to happen. Somebody somewhere is going to have to give something up and lay something (probably themselves) down for the sake of the other. Blood. Sweat. Tears. They are going to have to enter into our suffering rather than simply offering empathy and sympathy.

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The simple truth (and it’s become one of our Forge values) is that human transformation requires human relationship. It’s not a program or a machine. This is why God must break into the world. We cannot expect human beings to pray a prayer or take a class and see transformation. We cannot expect to see a neighborhood or community transformed only because a rec center was built. Until human beings are willing to invest in human beings true transformation will never happen. It is long, slow, grinding work that is NEVER finished. No human being ever reaches a finish line because we are never completed creations of God.

But, the true jazz of human work and the gospel is transfiguration work. Transfiguration implies a kind of exalting or lifting up. One might say that transformational work leads to transfiguration. Transfigurational ministry happens when the countenance and spirit of a person to is lifted to a new summit. It’s byproducts are hope and joy. Utimately, gospel work is about transfiguration. It’s about painstaking transformations, slow positive human erosions and constructions supported by the scaffolding and spires of dozens of caring human beings, that eventually elevate another person to LIFE. Irenaeus was once purported to have said that “the glory of God was a human being fully alive.” Transfiguration is when we see someone come to life and the radiance and resonance of that moment is profound. So, how do we go about transfigurational ministry?

We don’t.

My experience in ministry tells me that transfiguration happens through God alone. Heck, I am not even sure I am really capable of transformation! I know we can’t produce transfiguration. But, the divine moment when you look at a student or human and recognize that something is completely transformed, is beyond our creative capacities. It is the exclusive product of divine action. It is wonderfully beyond our control and measurement. It emerges from unexpected places and unexpected moments and shocks us. It violates our sense of what we once thought was possible. Transformation is uncommon because it takes so much work, time, and energy. Transfiguration is miraculous because it is impossible until it happens.

In the ministries I run, we value doing the right ministry, the right way, at the right pace. We think that transformation is often something that happens over years and perhaps even over generations. It is work that is difficult and requires mutual relationship. It is not possible without the Spirit. It does not produce a Christian caricature, but the real McCoy that only God can see and draw out of each one of us. Every once in a while we see a true transfiguration and we give thanks and plod on.

It’s a wonderful calling.



Graduation Day...Awesome!

Matthew Overton

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Every year as I do ministry there are certain days that I look forward to and certain days that are stressful, but well worth every ounce of effort. Last Sunday was a bit of both. The student job skills/life skills ministry that I created had it's annual meal and certification. It's a day when our mentors and students (Blacksmiths and Apprentices as we call them) come together to feast, share, and celebrate all the fruit that we have seen in our program. We started with 23 students and finished with 20.  It was an amazing process as usual. Let me share a few of the highlights.

-One student shared that their mentor, who has been one of our best youth leaders at our church, is an amazing human being. They shared openly that they have never had healthy adults in their lives and that they were really grateful for their mentor. This student will be coming on our youth service trip at our church this year for the first time.

-Another shared that their mentor seemed like a mirror 20 years into the future and that they were grateful that they could learn from their mistakes in career and money.

-A student with difficulty in social interaction shared that they have done a lot of technology programs before, but that in our drone program they realized that they have never treated their instructors as people. They have treated them as things that were there to give them something.  I was floored.

-An adult shared how they blew it this year. They admitted that when they started as a Blacksmith in our program they treated like a program rather than an opportunity for human relationship. They think they drove their student off. I don't agree, but it was amazing to see a grown adult in our world own a mistake for a change in front of teenagers.

-A student, who came into our program making sure we knew they were an atheist, was deeply thankful that their mentor challenged them to look at their HIGHLY materialistic goals and ask the question, "Why?" over and over again. They are starting to see that self-actualization and achievement that does not take one's neighbor into account can be pretty empty.

-One student shared that they have never realized that they could accomplish goals before. She described her mentor/blacksmith as someone who is an excellent listener. She talked about engaging her first drama performance at school because of their relationship and how she has taken the first step to cosmetology school. She has discovered that she has agency. A year ago she was massively depressed.

-Another student spoke out loud. This would have been impossible two years ago. They are reading the gospels for the first time.

-One student, who used to be very shy, spoke with great confidence and relayed how they have learned to navigate conflict for the first time and that they are a respected member of their staff at a local fast food chain. They are about to join the Army. It was a hard decision, but we made sure not to get in the way of that choice and cheered for them as we sat around the table.

-Many adults shared as well. They discovered things about teens and their experience that they hadn't known. They talked about the progress they made on their own personal goals because they were accountable to the students as well. Some of them talked about the deep respect they have for what some of their students carry day in and day out. Some talked about realizing that the context that they grew up in was vastly different than that of their students. I have felt all along that this ministry was just as much about the adults as the teens involved.

All I can say is that I felt that we were sitting around a Passover table despite the Hawaiian pizza and video game sounds coming from the mini arcade in the next room. What I saw and heard was the sound of glory. Not our glory, but God's glory. Irenaeus once said, "The glory of God is a human being fully alive." I saw the glory of people coming alive. I think Jesus was delighted with what was happening in that room on Sunday.  It has been worth every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears. It has been worth every bit of risk.

Let's create some new ways of doing youth ministry...and ministry in general.

Jim Bridger, The Revenant, and Room to Roam

Matthew Overton

A few months ago I wrote an article for Duke's Faith and Leadership journal on "Why I Started a Social Enterprise." I think it turned out pretty well, but one of the more frustrating aspects was the fact that it was limited to about 1,000 words. The difficulty is that whenever I sit down and think about how my journey into trying to do ministry through social enterprise started, I am floored by all the little and big factors that brought this about. One of the key features of it all has been this compelling sense that I "had to do this." I have encountered it many times along the way, but it him me pretty hard a few months back.

I was on a plan back from New York and I had purchased Michael Punke's book, "The Revenant". One of the key characters in the book is the young Jim Bridger. Bridger is of course one of the early trapper, explorer, trailblazers of American history and folk lore.  But, in the book he is a young man paddling a ferry boat post to post on the Mississippi river. Part way through the book, the author seeks to describe Bridger's "call" to go west into the frontier and it struck me. It seemed to capture everything I have felt over the last few years.

"The frontier for Bridger became an aching presence that he could feel, but could not define, a magnetic force pulling him inexorably toward something that he had heard about, but never seen. A preacher on a swaybacked mule rode Bridger's ferry one day. He asked Bridger if he knew God's mission for him in life. Without pause Bridger answered, "Go to the Rockies." The preacher was elated, urging the boy to consider missionary work with the savages. Bridger had no interest in bringing Jesus to the Indians, but the conversation stuck with him. The boy had come to believe that going west was more than just a fancy for someplace new. He came to see it as a part of his soul, a missing piece that could only be made whole on some far-off mountain or plain."

Ministry has often felt like Jim Bridger's ferry ride to me. It has been something that I have enjoyed and felt called to, but there has always been something missing. I think the problem has often been that ministry has not lent itself to enough innovation and exploration for me. There has been too much that is stayed and defined about it. Part of what social enterprise has offered me is a kind of new frontier. Many people along the way have sounded to me rather like the frontier preacher. They have wanted to do things that seem outmoded, counterproductive, awkward, and even outright hurtful in order to maintain the institution of the church.  It's not that I have no interest in carrying Jesus, it's that I am not always sure that I have liked the ways and means and even the Jesus that others have articulated for me to carry forth. These kinds of experiences have often felt stifling to me. It's one of the reasons that I haven't wanted to become a head of staff at a church.  The role doesn't allow enough risk or innovation. The articulated frameworks of the church feel a bit like a ferry ride. Post to post. Over and over again along the same route. I realized pretty quickly that was going to be difficult for me over the years. I love Jesus and the church, but I need space to do something stupid.

For me, like Bridger, freedom of movement has always been a premium. Even in my outdoors experiences I have rarely enjoyed doing the same hike twice. I need frontier space. Social Enterprise has offered that in a way that I could not have imagined. I never wanted the stress of entrepreneurship. My Dad was an entrepreneur and it never seemed to fall his way. At least part of why I went into ministry was that it was stable, if I am honest with myself. But, I have never like doing the same thing the same way, twice.

Christian Social Enterprise is for me, more than a fancy. It is as clear a mission as Bridger's, "Go to the Rockies." It is not a passing fancy or something new. It feels like a westward movement and like a puzzle piece in my soul has descended into place from out of the cosmos. It's exciting, though every once in a while I do envision the bear attack from the movie the Revenant and it gives me pause.