Monday, January 19, 2015

Now that is a song I can sing...

Yesterday, while a "budget hearing" was taking place in one room at church after worship (can you say "how can I suck the air out of a room after a stirring time in worship, children?") I chose to spend my time with our emerging ecu-youth group. About 20 youth and their parents joined an Episcopal colleague and myself to see where we might go together with youth ministry. We had tried at the start of the program year to bring in four other congregations, but it never got off the ground. What's more, while I could see how things were going south programmatically, I was too caught up in my father's illness and death to do anything but watch from the sidelines. So at about Christmas time, the hand-writing was on the wall and we agreed we needed to pause, regroup and try things in a new way.
One of those new ways involves my hands-on participation. Don't get me wrong, we have great parents and lay leaders, but we need to offer more guidance and planning to this effort than any one person can muster. So for the next three months before my sabbatical, I am going to spend time with these kids. And I love it! Youth group is where I received a call to ministry in 1968. Youth group is where I made some of my best friends. And youth group is where I learned how to organize coffee houses, concerts and mission trips let alone my earliest experiments with how so-called "secular" songs fits into Sunday morning worship. It was true formation for me - and it can be so for our youth, too.

I believe in this so much that I am also going to spend time with these kids during a portion of our up-coming annual meeting. Not because I believe that they are the "future of the church." That is both wishful thinking and sentimentalism; there is no evidence that teens organically move from youth group into faithful living as adults. Yes, if they come from a home that insists on practicing one faith tradition or another, then there is some empirical evidence that these children will carry on their formation into the future. But youth group alone is not enough. No, the reason I want to be with these young people has nothing to do with sloppy projections about the future of the church: these young people are hungry for a safe, honest and deep place to explore real life. And THAT is what I think an authentic youth group offers: shelter from the storm of adolescence and a place to wrestle with hard questions. Our youth don't need one more THING to do - they are already too busy - and they don't need the institution to trot them out periodically and show them off in some theological dog and pony show. Rather, what they need is a place beyond their families where they know they are safe and loved. Period.

That means, you see, that there is NO pay off for the church with youth groups. This is a ministry
of pure grace. Ok, if we are lucky, we'll have an impact on a teen's family and then there may be a way to fortify our effort beyond this moment in time. But for the most part, youth ministry is about  simply trusting God and paying it forward without any expectation of results. And that is why I am committed to helping get this off the ground. And that is what I will share with my leadership when I step away from our annual meeting:  annual meetings have their place - they do some good - and each congregation needs time to discuss in a significant way the challenges and blessings facing them in mission and ministry. But my church has been doing this for 250+ years - and they'll do it for another 250+ years after I am gone - but the Spirit invigorates young hearts in an unplanned way only once or twice in a lifetime. So, I am not going to blow it because another meeting has been scheduled. This is the time to stand with our youth. This is the time when two churches (and maybe more) sense that we can get over our parochialism and collaborate. And this is a time in culture when our young people need to know that we have their backs. Period.

All of this was spinning through my head last night as Di and I discussed the events of the day. She noted that it was 35 years ago that she and a few other young people had gone to Cambridge as youth. That got me to thinking about the first theologians I ever read - Bonhoeffer and Harvey Cox - and that happened 45 years ago. How did we get to be so freakin' old? But both of those old white guy's still have something to say about doing ministry even in the 21st century. One quote from  Feast of Fools by Harvey Cox (source of my doctoral work) continues to ring true even if the exclusive language is dated:

Mankind has paid a frightful price for the present opulence of Western industrial society. Part of the price is exacted daily from the poor nations of the world whose fields and forests garnish our tables while we push their people further into poverty. Part is paid by the plundered poor who dwell within the gates of the rich nations without sharing in the plenty. But part of the price has been paid by affluent Western man himself. While gaining the whole world he has been losing his own soul. He has purchased prosperity at the cost of a staggering impoverishment of the vital elements of his life. These elements are festivity -- the capacity for genuine revelry and joyous celebration -- and fantasy -- the faculty for envisioning radically alternate life situations. Festivity and fantasy are not only worthwhile in themselves, they are absolutely vital to human life.

At the core of what Cox wrote is a call to live into the promises and challenges of festivity and fantasy. If such a spirituality resonated in 1969, how much more so in 2015? Festivity is the path of joy - discerning awe and reality in every moment - and Richard Rohr describes it like this:

We did not honor and learn from the first and primary Bible of creation (the beauty and drama of nature), so how would we know how to honor and properly use the second Bible? We largely mangled and manipulated the written word of God for our own ego purposes, instead of receiving it inside of the mystery, awe, silence, and surrender--which the natural world demands of us and teaches us. Many have said that a fundamental attitude of awe is the primal religious experience and the beginning of the search for God. If we start with mere argument we never leave that battlefield. Imagine a religion called "Aweism"! Instead of wasting time trying to disprove miracles, this religion would be inhabited by people who see that everything is a miracle. Only people who can fully surrender to things beyond themselves can experience awe, wonder, or enchantment. Spiritual surrender is not giving up, which is the way we usually understand the term. Surrender is entering the present moment, and what is right in front of you, fully and without resistance or attempts at control. In that sense, surrender is almost the exact opposite of giving up. In fact,it is a being given to!

And fantasy - sweet fantasy - is both the willingness to dream and then envision ways to turn our
dreams into deeds. Clarence Jordan of Koinonia in GA re-translated Hebrews 11 like this: Faith is the turning of dreams into deeds. (The English text many of us use is "faith is the assurance of things hoped for..." but Jordan's work is so much more incarnational and challenging, yes?) In Mako Fujimura's recent posting he wrote about what it means to stay connected to our dreams:

In August 1963, prior to giving his "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. found himself exhausted by a series of setbacks, imprisonments, oppressions, and disappointments. He was so physically spent that he spent many hours simply resting while his followers wrote the speech he was to give to the historic gathering. One of his close aides, Clarence Benjamin Jones, said that "the logistical preparations for the March were so burdensome that the speech was not a priority for us," and that, "on the evening of Tuesday, August 27, [twelve hours before the March] Martin still didn't know what he was going to say." After walking a few miles to the Lincoln Memorial, he stood to read the prepared text, but he knew something was not right.

Mahalia Jackson, the great Gospel singer who sang before he spoke, stood behind Dr. King throughout the prepared speech. As he read the text, she kept on yelling, "tell 'em about the dream, Martin; tell 'em about the dream!" At the end of the prepared speech, Dr. King put down his text and began to speak extemporaneously; the energy of the crowd listening empowered him, and the result was the "I Have a Dream" we know today.

Imagine that-an artist pushing a tired preacher to preach from his heart. Dr. King was an artist of the dream, but it took another artist to recognize the artistry that was being held back by the context of the gathering. Artists need to stand behind the podiums of preachers, teachers, and leaders and remind them to "tell 'em about the Dream!" Part of our calling is to remind leaders of what they are marching toward to begin with, to reach into the deepest recesses of their own visions. Sometimes, we may need to remind them to put down their prepared text. Artists who operate as mearcstapas can exhort in this way, in and out of a prepared tribal language into a visionary, extemporaneous "jazz" language of the heart. That music invites all to become extemporaneous artists of care.

One cold, rainy evening in New York City in 2010, I was invited to serve on a panel for a special screening of Countdown to Zero, a film about nuclear disarmament. The friend who organized the meeting was disappointed by the turnout; only about thirty people came. He apologized to the crowd, and to the panel, which also included civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, for the low turnout. Jackson stopped him: "I remember that day when Martin gave his famous sermon at the Riverside Church," Jackson said. "There were only about thirty people then, too." 
The panel went on to discuss an initiative by President Ronald Reagan and President Mikhail Gorbachev to eliminate nuclear weapons. At one point, Jackson spoke up again. "It was only when Marvin Gaye started to sing that song ["What's Going On"] that our civil rights movement became a true movement." He looked me straight in the eye: "We need artists because they give us songs to sing to."

Connecting justice with beauty is essential. Any cause we believe in needs a song that everyone can sing, a song to march to or rally around, a song that will draw people in so they can learn to care. Artists are the ones to provide the music. But artists are not present just to entertain the crowd; like Mahalia Jackson, they can play a role to reveal the heart of a movement. This is possible because they, as mearcstapas, must learn not only to speak tribal languages, but also trade languages and creoles that connect people across boundaries. Artists are, in this sense, uniquely prepared to create beauty that is universal or points to the universal. They write songs that everyone can sing.

Tell 'em about the dream - help them cherish and honor those dreams - create a safe place for dreaming and serious conversation and prayer:  today I give thanks to the adults and churches that gave me this gift. And today in the shadow of Dr. King's life I realize that doing this in my generation is a song that I can sing in these later days of ministry.

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