Posted in Learning

Tierra Sancta: 9 Days in Cuba

I was lucky enough to spend last week seeing Cuba with old and new friends, and looking and listening for God in a place where the church is vibrant, just, inclusive, and growing in a way that inspires hope not only for what the church could be like, but for what I could be like.

We started in the stunning beach town of Veradero, where we connected with the local church and the young adults there. They showed us what the church does in their own community, and brought us around to the neighboring poorer communities where they are seeking to build up networks of small house churches and community development projects. We saw VBS run out of the yard of an elderly woman, and and old building once filled with bats transformed into a church and neighborhood center, and were inspired by the church’s relentless commitment to building up their own community.

We struggled to put a finger on it, but sitting on those stunning beaches after dinner, talking through those first few days, we all shared a similar sense: something special was happening here. Not only did the Cuban church not need us in the slightest, it had something, a spark, that it was a gift to even get to stand in the light of.

After 2 days in Veradero, we piled in a old VW bus with “END THE BLOCKADE AGAINST CUBA” spray-painted on the side, and drove hours out into the country side for the next leg of our adventure.


By 10am the next morning, it was so hot that the legs of the plastic chairs were starting to melt and get soft, which led them to randomly collapse under the weight of whoever was sitting on them.

The sudden and hilarious interruptions provided humbling punctuation to the serious, impassioned conversation that filled the cement-and-rebar outdoor classroom.

We were at a Presbyterian camp in a rural area outside of Santa Clara, most well-known as the hometown of Che Guevara. We were lucky to be there; not just in Cuba (although that’s not nothing) but in this place, far outside of any normal visitor’s path. Our trip leader had asked the group of Cuban Christians we were working with where they experienced God, and this place had been there answer. Our leader, Josh’s, follow-up question was simple,

“Will you show us?”

That question, and the hope that we might have “eyes to see and ears to hear” was all our team really brought to Cuba, and our curiosity was more than well rewarded. That “classroom” was filled with dozens of Cuban Christians listening attentively to a woman pounding a chalkboard with one message written large across the top: “La Gracia de Dios es para todos, todas,” or ‘The grace of God is for everyone.’

The fiery, all-in, radically inclusive Presbyterian church of Cuba filled that camp with animated discussions about justice, with laughter over shots of espresso, and with late night salsa dancing. We said little and learned much. The last night we were in the camp, Josh spoke to the group to thank them for having us, and he referenced Exodus 3, the story of Moses and the burning bush, and in particular, God’s instruction to Moses:

“Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on Holy Ground.”

Holy Ground, Tierra Sancta, surrounded us at that camp, and those sacred barefoot days, spurred us on to our 3rd and final leg.



We stopped along the way at an amazing overlook, a wonderful seminary, and the restaurant where Hemingway was inspired to write The Old Man and The Sea, but it was all leading to Havana.

It was captivating. The narrow streets wove through old European architecture and the city buzzed with street music and food carts and kids playing soccer on town squares. Political and striking graffiti covered bare walls and every street corner and doorway had markers chronicling the city’s long, colorful, tragic history.

We were shown around the city by the President of the Council of Churches in Cuba, Dopico, who was also the pastor at the church we started at in Veradero. Dopico described Cuba’s history as one of betrayal, exploitation, and a people trying to find someway to be their own. Whether by the Spanish, the British, the Americans, or the Soviets, Cuba, he said, was always a plaything of somewhere else.

Under Soviet pressure, the Cuban government became officially atheist in the 1970’s (the church in Cuba faced relatively little struggle between the revolution in the 50’s and then). Many churches and seminaries closed, and 70% of the pastors in the country left Cuba.

Dopico told us that, in those days, people said that Jesus himself had left Cuba.

But some stayed. People like Dopico, like the President of the seminary in Medanzas, Cuba, where they went years without graduates but never closed their doors, or like Rita Rodriguez, a woman who, for years, was the only member of the church in Veradero where we had started our adventure. Those who stayed had no reason to believe that the situation would get any better, and it didn’t. For decades.

In 1995, when the constitution was changed to allow for the free practice of religion, it was leaders like Dopico, institutions like the seminary at Medanzas, and faithful laypeople like Rita, that built the foundation for the reconstruction of the church. And the church is Cuba is alive because of it. They still face massive challenges, like a shortage of ministers, a whole generation (those who came of age between 1975 and 1995) missing from the pews, and inadequate compensation and social safety nets for pastors.

But their social values of inclusion and equality are working in their favor to help them create a vision of the church that is not just a light for Cuba, but for the declining church of the West, as well. It’s not an exaggeration to say everywhere we went with the Cuban church had people of every color, age, mental ability, and physical ability. For them, a church that reaches those in the margins, and those of diverse backgrounds, isn’t a desire, its a fundamental truth of what it means to be the church at all.


Our last night in Havana, Josh had us all offer one word up in prayer from our experience. My word was hope. Not hope for Cuba, hope from Cuba, for myself. My 9 days in Cuba didn’t just provide me a new passport stamp, or new friends, or a handful of fun new stories, it gave me hope. I brought “eyes to see and ears to hear” and what I saw and heard was remarkable: that the world didn’t have to be as it was. That community, grace, and justice can triumph over politics, fear, and all that divides us. That the Kingdom of God is still arriving on Earth, even, and especially, in those places that princes and principalities have forgotten.

As we prayed in church on Sunday, En la tierra como en el cielo – On Earth as is in Heaven.



A Guide to Referral Guides

I’m back on the Youth Specialties blog today with “5 Steps to a Better Referral Guide” – its less fun than most of what I write, but it might also be, shocker, useful to people in the field. Its a practical guide for how to put together a guide to local mental health professionals, feel free to share it with anyone who might need it.

Posted in Learning

Do Less: A (No)Programmatic Answer to the Spring Slump

I had the opportunity through a CYMT connection to contribute to the Youth Specialties blog. Youth Specialties is a big youth ministry thing you would know about if you cared about youth ministry things.

Speaking of youth ministry things – here’s my first post as a contributor for Youth Specialties, you can tell its important because its tagged as “uncategorized”- actually though, its about spring programming, self-restraint, and breaking the temptation to program our way into relevance as youth pastors.

You can read it (oooh or like or tweet it!) at this link!

The Importance and Normalcy of Doubt

Last week’s blog post for work: Doubt.

I gave a talk oriented around these ideas to a group of around 20 of the youth I work with, and had giant sticky notes on the wall with the 3 questions (Today, what can’t you believe? Today, what can you believe, but doubt? and Today, what can you believe?”) written on them. The answers that emerged were powerful, heart-breaking, and poignant, as teenagers often prove they have the capacity to be.

They doubt God’s providence in death, they doubt their own forgiveness, but they believe that it will get better and they believe that this family will be there for them through it all.

Posted in Learning

From the Justin: 2 Timothy 2:8-15

I’ve had some friends ask that I keep posting about what I’m learning in seminary and in my new world of youth ministry. I’m excited to! However, between writing curriculum, talks, and papers for seminary, I already write a lot. So I’m going to be intermittently sharing things I wrote for other purposes. I hope it is useful for people in the youth ministry community, or at least fun for my mom and 6 friends that read my blog.

Here’s the talk I gave to middle and high school students, on Oct. 9 on 2 Timothy 2: 8 -15, which was pulled from the lectionary. Disclaimer: this was written for 12-17 year olds, and I am not an early church scholar. 


The other day, I saw an article online about the “Instagram Bible” – talking about how teenagers today most often see scripture quotes in cool fonts over scenic pictures in nature. People use a lot of different verses for these, but they’re all basically the same bent: trust in the Lord for He is good, sing praise to the Lord of all creation, my soul finds rest in God, etc. You know, instagram-able stuff. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with celebrating and loving the words of scripture, isn’t there something we miss out on when we take verses so radically out of any socio-cultural, historical, or even narrative context?

Don’t we think that by cutting and snipping and sanitizing the Bible, we’re not making it more, but less? The Bible is not a collection of fortune cookies stapled together, but a collection of works by different writers, editors, and genres, assembled together over thousands of years, and shaped by all of the contexts of all of those time periods.

So before we talk about today’s scripture – I want to spend a second zooming out and talking about context.

After Jesus dies and is resurrected, he tells the disciples to “go out and make disciples of all nations” and then ascends into to heaven. The Holy Spirit comes in the Pentecost, and the disciples can now speak all languages, perform miracles, cast out demons, etc. They go around, spreading the good news of Jesus, and the church grows like wildfire. Things are going according to plan.

Then, in 57 ad, about 25 years after Jesus died, a new Roman emperor takes over, his name is Nero. Nero, looking to consolidate his rule as emperor, seeks the fledgling church as an easy target. Persecution against the early church intensifies. Church leaders are thrown into jail, and killed, church meetings go underground. The church is scattered, frightened, and unsure. This can’t be what Jesus wanted? I thought his kingdom was coming? I thought that his word was supposed to spread all over the earth?

Paul is back in prison, but this time its different. In his earlier imprisonment, he was treated as sort of a guest of honor, but now, he’s in chains, in a dungeon, where even his closest friends struggle to find him. He knows he’s not going to make it out of this one. He knows he’s dying.

I imagine the letters being read, I imagine the people of the church gathered in someone’s house, by night, so they wont be discovered. I imagine one person standing up front holding a candle close to the letter to read it out loud to the group

“Guys, guys! Be quiet, hush, its from Paul, its a letter from Paul! “… Dear church in Ephesus, stop with all your internal fighting (yeah, Carol. Oh come on, you know its about you, please) support and build up each other…” 

I imagine a young guy standing in the back of the room. He’s nervous, shifting his feet, not really listening. His name is Timothy. Paul has chosen him as his successor to lead the baby church. He’s not an obvious choice, he’s young, and timid, and inexperienced. But there weren’t a whole lot of other options. He’s received a special letter from Paul, addressed just to him. Timothy doesn’t know it yet, but that letter is the last recorded writings of Paul before he dies.

I imagine Timothy’s hands shaking a little as he opens the letter. What’s Paul going to say? Is he getting out of prison soon? Does he know how they’re going to avoid getting stamped out by Nero? Does he have a plan?

Timothy reads:

My dear son, Timothy…

Remember Jesus Christ, who was raised from the dead and descended from David. This is my good news. This is the reason I’m suffering to the point that I’m in prison like a common criminal (in chains). But God’s word cannot be imprisoned (God’s word is unchained) .  This is why I endure everything for the sake of those who are chosen by God so that they too may experience salvation in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. This saying is reliable:

“If we have died together, we will also live together.
       If we endure, we will also rule together.
        If we deny him, he will also deny us.
 If we are disloyal, he stays faithful”
    because he can’t be anything else than what he is.

It’s an encouragement. Paul, dying in a prison cell, uses his last letter to send Timothy words of encouragement.

Paul says, “this is my good news.” That Jesus is resurrected (v. 8), God’s word is unchained (v. 9), we are part of the story (v. 11), and the glue that holds it all together? God can’t help but be faithful because God can’t help but be God (v. 13). 

Paul’s message to Timothy is essentially this: ‘I know you’re young and scared and you feel like the world is coming down on your shoulders. I know you’re afraid of being a disappointment and you don’t know what’s ahead, but have hope, be brave, Timothy. God can’t help but be God. I know it all seems like its falling apart but God can’t help but be God, God can’t help but be faithful to us, have hope.’ 

This letter, at its core, is a message of hope. Paul’s hope is not in himself, or even in Timothy, but in the Kingdom of God. Paul’s hope is not that Timothy will do everything perfectly, or even that they’re even going to see their situation get any better, but that God is perfect regardless.

Paul knows he’s dying but writes words of hope regardless.

Can you imagine Timothy? Can you imagine him looking around the room nervously? As they finish reading the letter to the whole church, eyes gradually turn towards him. People are chattering, they know that he’s the chosen successor of Paul, and he got a special letter! What did it say? Was he coming back? Did he have instructions on how to escape this nightmare? Can you imagine him slowly stepping forward, looking at his feet. What was he going to tell them? What was he supposed to say?


I believe that hope is the bravest form of faith. Maybe I picture Timothy so clearly because I also struggle to hold onto hope. I can imagine he was scared. I would have been scared too. I’m scared when I speak to my church now, when I speak to teenagers and say, “hope.” I can’t imagine how Timothy felt, especially in a context when he had so little to be hopeful about.

Back when  I worked in Northern Thailand,  I had a case where the client was 12  and around 5 months pregnant. (I’ve talked about her, and her baby, before in this blog, so this may sound redundant). I did my job. I mean, I did what I could. We got her set up at part time school, took her to doctors appointments, tried to get her parents the vocational support they needed to make a stable enough income that she would be safe from further exploitation. The legal team prosecuted her case successfully, but her abuser was sentenced to one year of probation. But this was a situation where it all seemed pretty hopeless, nothing I could do was enough. I felt like Timothy left to lead a fledgling church with no instruction and no way out of the desperate situation they were in. On February 9th, 2015, she had her baby, and she named him Daniel. 

Daniel. Daniel who was thrown to the lions and survived, Daniel who survived the furnace. Daniel who, right before he was thrown into the furnace said ‘my God is strong enough to deliver me, but even if he does not, he is still God.’ Even if He doesn’t deliver us from this furnace, even if I die in this jail cell, He is still God. I will still have hope. 

I was so busy worrying about all the ways I was inadequate, that I almost missed a 12 year old mother and a baby named Daniel who turned 20 months old last week. I was so busy worrying about all the ways that I was trying to do a good job, to bring hope in a hopeless situation that I almost missed the inexplicable truth that hope was already there. A 12 year old trafficking victim was the Paul to my timothy, calling from struggle like I couldn’t know – saying this is my good news: Jesus is resurrected, God is truly unchained. 

Hope is the bravest form of faith. Hope like a baby named Daniel, hope like a dying man in a prison cell. And sometimes, we the Timothys, need those who seem like they should have the least hope of all, to remind us to be brave.

I imagine that Timothy shook out his hands, and stepped up in front of everyone, and said “this is my good news” even knowing that hard days lay ahead of them.

We are called to lead the church, to be the church, to sing hope from jail cells and say “this is my good news – Jesus is resurrected, God is unchained, and we are part of the story, even if we’re not sure why. Because God is God and he can’t help but be faithful to us”

I imagine as Timothy said it, he started to believe it. We may not see how things are getting any better (he may not rescue us from the lions den, from the prison cell) but we are called to hope regardless, because God cant be anything but God is. And God is good, and powerful, and bringing the kingdom on earth. And that is my good news.