Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Safe From Jesus

Most of the kids at Presbyterian Youth Triennium were not what you would call hooligans. These are church kids. Many of them had been to more than one church camp already this summer. Many had grown up attending Sunday School, and doing Vacation Bible School on school breaks. When I asked my small group of twenty-five teenagers if we had any pastor’s kids in the mix, four of them raised their hands. When you get 5,000 teenagers in one place there is bound to be a lot of energy and a bit of misbehavior, but not as much as you might think. These are the kids who have bought into the program and internalized our expectations. They are the “good” ones.

The Presbyterian Youth Triennium is a remarkable event. Held every three years on the campus of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, it is a huge conference. This was my second time attending as an adult advisor. It was my job, along with the other adults, to guide the group of youth from our presbytery to and from the event; to ensure their safety; and help them have a good time. Though it was exhausting it was not difficult to get these kids to be on their best behavior. As I said, these kids, for the most part, are the ones who know what good church behavior is. Many of them had been sent on this trip by parents who hoped that Triennium would continue to reinforce how to be a good, polite, jesus-loving, church-goer.

Imagine how surprised some of those parents, and most of these teenagers were when the dominant theme of the conference seemed to be breaking the expectations our parents and churches and society put on us to fit the mold. Preacher after preacher hammered the point that following Jesus means living sacrificially. It means giving up what we want for ourselves, and what others want for us, and following God’s plans which often sound and look crazy. The youth were encouraged to be risk-takers, and by this they did not mean “entrepreneurs”. The preachers told the kids to stand with the homeless by sleeping on the street with them. To make peace by going into warzones and bringing relief to the victims. To speak out against homophobia, and to let their hearts be broken by the things that break the heart of Jesus Christ. These kids who spend a lot of their energy making their parents proud were invited to turn away from success, power, prestige, and even approval. They were persuasively encouraged to give everything they have away in order to be with the least of these.

It was, in my opinion, as raw and truthful a presentation of the gospel as you could ask for.

I have no doubt, though, that many of these kids arrived home to have their enthusiasm suddenly dampened by disapproval. Well-meaning parents and teachers and church-members will give these kids a hefty dose of “reality”. They will be told that all that risky stuff is overly idealistic. That they need to know "how the world works" and make responsible decisions. They will be set back on the course toward expensive colleges and respectable careers. The parents will breath a sigh of relief and make a mental note not to send their kids back to an event like Triennium, which is going to say things they disagree with. They will save their kids from that crazy radical Jesus.

I wonder how many of us have been saved by friends and family when we were dangerously close to following Christ. How many times have you nearly done something completely foolish like take a homeless person into your house when at the last minute sanity intervened and you gave them some spare change instead? We’ve learned very well how to be realistic, and safe. Especially safe from Jesus.


dweston said...

Thanks for this, Arc. One of my youth went to Triennium and came back pretty fired up. Interestingly enough though, he's talked to me but he hasn't been back to worship since he returned. I know it's only been two weeks, but the week before Triennium, some older church members said some really mean spirited things in response to GA, particularly about the LGBT community. I see part of my job is to side with this youth and work to keep his fire lit. I see the investment in the future of someone who might want to follow the radical Jesus of the Gospels as a better use of my time than investing in someone who wants to promote the neutered Jesus of America.

Aric Clark said...

I agree about where it is worth investing your time. If you've never been to Triennium one problem with it is that it is quite a mountaintop experience (especially as regards the worship). Some kids have a hard time coming back down. They don't see the connection. They wish church was always like that crazy worship service with 5000 teens in Elliot Hall of Music and it is never like that.

I don't know this particular kid, but you might try asking him if there is something he would like to do or see in worship. I led a couple energizers from Triennium with my ancient congregation and it was a laugh.

dweston said...

Thanks for the advice Aric. I am doing just that. Thanks also for the reminder of how difficult it can be to come down from the mountaintop experiences. I'm trying hard to be sensitive to that.

Aric Clark said...

Hey, advice is cheap. Conversation with a friend and colleague is priceless.

Doug Hagler said...

Think of how much the post-Exodus community talked about the mountaintop, though. Maybe part of it is periodically standing up and shouting "Remember the mountaintop!"

Aric Clark said...

@ Doug,

Definitely! I don't think the idea is to marginalize or repress our experiences of the mountaintop. Nor do I like anyone trying to tell me to live in the "real world" - whatever that means. I think the mountaintop experiences are actually what is real - they are the inbreaking of God's reality into our lives. So the way to deal with the mountaintop isn't to somehow get over it and get back to daily life, but to constantly remind ourselves and others of God's reality. To say that "the kingdom is at hand".

This is why, I think, the Civil Rights Movement for example was so eschatological in its vocabulary. "I have been to the mountaintop." "I have seen the promised land." That has to be our refrain.

Doug Hagler said...

And for me, perhaps most importantly, the promise of the Church *cannot* be "When you die, you will be teleported to the mountaintop". It's mountaintop here, in this life, or no deal.