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July 15-22, 2009 – Private grief in the limelight

Contributed by Pastor Claudia Bergmann
Eisleben, Germany

Warm-up Question: What’s so scary about speaking in front of a crowd?

“Every since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine and I just wanted to say that I love him so much.” These few words spoken by eleven-year old Paris Jackson at the end of her own father’s memorial service brought tears to millions of people’s eyes around the world. What a remarkable witness to a loving relationship, many thought. And what courage it must have taken to step up to the microphone and make your own grief public.

But ever since the event, the Jackson family has also been criticized for pushing Paris into the limelight. Some witnesses claimed that they had overheard the little girl crying and screaming backstage as she was trying to refuse getting on stage. When she did appear, family members surrounded her and held her, one person even making sure that the microphone was adjusted correctly. Yet, child psychologist Linda Blair believes that the family made a “bad judgment”. She says: “This is a girl who has been shielded from the media her whole life. When a child is in shock, as Paris still will be from her father’s death, the most important thing is to keep everything as normal as possible. But the opposite has happened here.” Blair expects “potentially traumatic results”.

In light of the psychologist’s assessment, the images of Paris speaking look a bit different. A wall of adults surrounding one little girl… all of them hiding their vulnerable faces and their grief behind sunglasses. The only one who had nothing to protect her face and her teary eyes from the public was the most vulnerable of them all: a little girl who had just lost her father. Is a family known for dragging children on stage doing it again to the next generation?

Discussion Questions

  1. Would you ever consider speaking at a loved one’s funeral?
  2. What do you think are the right things to say at a funeral? What should remain unspoken?
  3. For those of you who watched the event at the Staples Center: Do you think that it did justice to Michael Jackson’s life and work? Why? Why not?
  4. Have you ever thought about your own funeral service? Would you want to have a say on what is said, what music is played, what lessons are read?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, July 19, 2009.

(Text links are to oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

Jesus just wanted to be left alone for a while; go somewhere away from the crowd. Rest. Eat. Be in a quiet place with his selected few. So they left in a boat to what they thought was a deserted place, maybe across a lake or to the other side of a river. But people followed them on foot, the Gospel of Mark says. They must have hurried, getting there even before Jesus did with his disciples. Imagine, crowds of people running on the shore of a lake, anxiously looking at the boat and trying to gauge where it would come ashore. People wading across a shallow spot, breathing heavily to make it to the other side. Women bringing their little ones in their arms. Older people supporting each other. Groups of youth carrying the sick with them. And when they finally pull the boat onto the shore, Jesus does not have the heart to send them all away and rest. He teaches them as a good shepherd of his people would, and he comforts and heals the one who have need of compassion and healing.

We do not know why there are a few places in the Gospels where Jesus seems to want to be alone. Is he an introvert who needs to re-group and rest before dealing with yet another big crowd? Is it not time for his public ministry to start yet? Why does he ask people occasionally in the Gospel of Mark to keep their knowledge about his identity to themselves?

But we do know that attempting to keep away from the people and attempting to keep things quiet about his identity did not work. People found out who he was and they came to Jesus in droves. And Jesus himself could not stay away from them either. His message about the kingdom of God was just too powerful to stay a quiet, private affair. God wanted this message out into the public. And God still does.

Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think Jesus needs time away? Read Mark 1:35, 1:45 and compare it to Mark 6:30-34 and 53-56.
  • Under what circumstances would you wear a button that says “I am a Christian”? In school? At a baseball game? At a restaurant?
  • If we believe that faith comes to people through the Holy Spirit and through God’s grace, why should we even bother making disciples? Isn’t that the Holy Spirit’s job?
  • Do you think that Christians should be open and public about their faith? That your congregation should be more open about their faith? That you should be more open about your own faith? What hinders you to make your faith public? What could help you overcome your hesitations?

Activity Suggestion

Working with the text, twice
(a) Most scholars who study the Gospel of Mark think that Mark 6:34-44 and 8:1-10 are two literary expressions of the same event. Have your youth group read the two stories side by side. Compare and contrast them. Which elements remind you of the Eucharist?

(b) Did you know that Jesus was not the first to miraculously feed the hungry? Read 1 Kings 17:7-16 and 2 Kings 4:42-44 and compare them to the feeding miracle Jesus does in the Gospel of Mark.

Invite a local funeral director and/or the pastor to your youth group and have them talk about all the preparation work that goes into a funeral service. Allow your youth to ask any questions that they might have.

If you know your youth group well, and only when you feel that it is appropriate for them, encourage them to write a few notes about their choices for their own funeral (hymns, music, lessons, speakers, etc.). Give them the option to keep the notes or give them to their pastor or parents.

Making (the congregation’s) faith public
Invite someone from your congregation who is responsible for advertising congregational events and such to talk with your group. Ask them to talk about what the congregation has done in the past to invite new members or to become better known in the local community. Then, brainstorm with that person and your youth group what they could do to make the congregation known to people who are not members, or to better serve the surrounding community.

Think about one creative activity that you can accomplish that day or at the next youth group meeting. (But make sure that your council and pastor approves before you start your advertising campaign!) Examples include:

  • Making a banner and placing it in the congregation’s yard
  • Developing the text for an ad in the local newspaper
  • Making buttons to hand out to people
  • Adding special features, videos, or photos to the congregation’s Web site
  • Planning a special event to invite the community to (job fair, pet blessing, social ministry effort, movie discussion night, etc.)
  • Etc.

Making (your personal) faith public
Talk with your group about the difficulties we all face in talking about our faith in public. Discuss strategies for how we can overcome this fear. Together, come up with one or two exercises they can do so that they can practice talking about their faith. Check in with youth the next week to see whether they tried their exercises and how they felt about it.

Closing Prayer

Jesus, we trust that you are our shepherd, our teacher, and the one who heals our bodies and our souls. We ask you to give us the right words to talk about our faith with others. We ask that you open our ears to the witness of others so that they might strengthen our faith. And we ask you to make us part of the long tradition of people who could not stay silent and hide their beliefs from the public. Give us the same courage that our forefathers and foremothers in the faith had. Amen.

April 29-May 6, 2009 – Required accessory: a knife for butchering sheep

Contributed by Pastor Claudia Bergmann
Eisleben, Germany

Warm-up Question: Have you ever wanted to be a pageant queen or king?
“It’s not just a beauty pageant and traveling. It’s not just waving. It’s a whole lot more than that,” says Audra Ettsity Platero who won the Miss Navajo pageant and represented the Navajo Nation in 1995-1996. And it is not just about butchering sheep. According to the Miss Navajo Nation Council, the Navajo look for a young woman to become the role model and representative for Navajo culture. The lucky winner receives a salaried position with the Navajo Nation that includes health benefits and a furnished tribal apartment, as well as a scholarship for her future education. In return, she will have to display leadership as Goodwill Ambassador and exemplify the character of First Woman, White Shell Woman, and Changing Woman.

How does one become Miss Navajo Nation? The pageant is open to all enrolled female members of the Navajo Nation between the ages of 18 and 25. Contestants must be unmarried, possess a high school diploma or GED, and speak fluently both Navajo and English. They must also turn in an essay and a PowerPoint presentation entitled “Contributions I Would Make as the New Miss Navajo Nation.” Over the course of several days the contestants must prove their Navajo knowledge and skills in various competitions. Skills tested include bread making, butchering sheep, grinding corn, dancing, crafts, storytelling, public speaking, and fluency in Navajo government and history. One skill or talent must be demonstrated entirely in English, and one entirely in Navajo. For the evening gown competition, contestants are asked to pick one conservative contemporary gown and one traditional gown.

The Miss Navajo Nation pageant received nationwide attention when Billy Luther’s documentary “Miss Navajo” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005, and has since aired on PBS and numerous independent movie theaters. Luther’s intention was not to make a film about Navajo women or about inner beauty. He wanted to make a film about a beauty pageant contestant. As it turns out, though, his work became an inspiration for young girls who are in search of identity and a film about the importance of cultural preservation and the surprising role a beauty pageant can serve. Says Billy Luther, “Sometimes, as in life, the winners aren’t always the winners and the losers aren’t always the losers.”

The current Miss Navajo Nation is Yolanda Charley (photo on left), a young woman who put college on hold to take care of her grandfather in Chichchiltah, NM.

Discussion Questions
  • The current Miss America contestants must compete in the following disciplines: Artistic Expression (Talent), Presentation and Community Achievement (Interview), Presence and Poise (Evening Wear), Lifestyle and Fitness (Swimsuit), Peer Respect and Leadership, Knowledge and Understanding. Compare these to the skills a Miss Navajo Nation contestant needs to display. Which set of skills do you find more helpful for modern life? Why?
  • Why do you think so many people are interested in becoming famous?
  • What are the pros and cons about being a star or celebrity?
  • What makes people beautiful?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, May 3, 2009.
(Text links are to oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

Do you like being compared to sheep? In our culture, sheep are considered stupid herd animals that do not display their own will. They follow wherever the sheep ahead of them walk. They graze on whatever the sheep next to them eats. They are chased around by a shepherd and some dogs. And they end up being butchered. Not much to the life of a sheep, is there?

Yet, both the Bible and Christian tradition use the image of sheep and shepherd as a positive one. In the catacombs of Rome, in graves where early Christians were buried, we have beautiful mosaics depicting Jesus as the good shepherd. And is there a Sunday school room without a picture of the same good shepherd Jesus pinned to the wall?

The reason why Christianity does not have a problem with this image is the fact that it is a metaphor or figurative language. Imagine that you want to express the following things:

  • We are many; God is one
  • We sometimes lose our way in life, but God helps us to find it again
  • We sometimes get in trouble, but God bails us out
Now, how would you express these three facts without actually listing them? You would have to find a story or an image (or what we call a metaphor). In modern life, the image of a coach of a sports team might be an example of how this metaphor could work: a sports team has one coach only who sets his players straight and helps them out when they get in trouble. Similarly, the Bible used the image of shepherd and sheep. It did not intend to say that we are stupid herd animals. Instead, it wanted to express that when we are weak we can count on a strong divine leader to help us.

John 10:11-18 is a case in point. Here, the metaphor of the good shepherd explains that Jesus and his people have a strong relationship with each other. This good shepherd would even give his life for his sheep (and he actually did). There are also other shepherds who go “sheep-stealing” and might want to lead us astray. But only with our one divine shepherd — Jesus — will we gain life. Everyone from John’s cultural context understood what he meant by that metaphor because they were familiar with the life of sheep and shepherds. The metaphor actually made the points that John wanted to get across more memorable. If you have an image or a story in the back of your mind, you don’t forget the facts.

Being a sheep in the context of this biblical metaphor is not so bad after all. Our shepherd is not a bossy one who pushes us around for no good reason. He holds back most of the time and lets us nibble on the grass here and there. Only sometimes, when we are in trouble, he takes leadership and reigns us in. Even the smartest sheep and the smartest people need this kind of guidance. Isn’t it comforting to know that somebody will catch us if we trip and are in danger of falling down a rocky slope? This is what our divine shepherd does.

Discussion Questions

  • Shepherd and sheep, coach and sports team… can you think of other images or metaphors that convey what points 1-3 are supposed to express?
  • Why does the Bible need to use metaphor and story?
  • Where do we use metaphor in modern life?
  • What makes people beautiful in the eyes of our divine shepherd?

Activity Suggestions

1. The metaphor in the biblical text
Have Bibles or printouts of Ezekiel 34:1-16 and John 10:11-18 ready. Ask your group to read both texts and make two lists on a large sheet of paper. On the one side, have them list all the characteristics of a good shepherd that they can find. On the other side, list all the characteristics of a bad, negligent, or uncaring shepherd. If your group is too large, split them up.

Then, ask them what modern metaphor would fit these characteristics. Who, in our modern times, is like the good shepherd, who is like the bad shepherd? Have them discuss whether finding a modern metaphor for these characteristics would help people understand the text better.

2. The metaphor in art
In preparation for this, print out as many images of the Good Shepherd as you can. The art index of can be a starting point. Share these images with your group and ask them, which ones they find most appropriate for the way Jesus is depicted in John 10:11-18. Discuss with them the pros and cons of finding other, seemingly unusual images for the Good Shepherd… images that would communicate well in 2009.

3. Update a psalm
Psalm 23 uses the shepherd metaphor in verses 1-4. Then, after comparing God to a shepherd caring for his sheep, it switches metaphors and compares God to a loving and caring host in verse 5.

Have your students discuss what verses 1-4 want to express and ask them to write these points down line by line. Then, ask them to find different, more modern, metaphors that convey the same message. What would the psalm sound like if it were updated? If your students come up with more than one option, have them update the psalm in small groups. Then, compare the results and discuss what they like and dislike about each option.

4. Metaphor becomes alive
In preparation for this activity, ask members of your congregation what Psalm 23 means to them and whether they would be willing to share their stories with your youth group. Make sure that you provide a comfortable and safe atmosphere for the people who are willing to share these very personal stories. Don’t ask your students to comment on what they have heard but invite them to share stories from their lives where a biblical text became important to them.

Closing Prayer

Simply pray Psalm 23 together.