The youth retreat was last Tuesday. This day, the youth was a group of high school aged boys (Only boys. Not because boys are the only ones welcome, but because that’s just how it was. There is one lovely young woman, but she happened to be on vacation, so we had all boys. I am not complaining or lamenting this fact.) This group spent 12 hours together with 2 adult facilitators swimming in a lake, reading the book of Mark, and eating. Towards the end of the evening, I had the opportunity to ask if there was anything they wanted to talk about, fully expecting silence or, if anything at all, I figured something about girls.
For some reason, the evangelical political-spiritual movement in this country has decided the 2 most important issues facing the Church are not grace, love, compassion, poverty, kindness, non-violence, addiction, or anything else. Abortion and Homosexuality are the big 2, and judging by the overwhelming amount of time & energy given to those 2, there isn’t a 3rd. I tell you this because one of these thoughtful, courageous boys chose to take my invitation to ask about homosexuality, which became a wildly fascinating hour long discussion.
These young men were engaging with the Scriptures – much more than just these two current hot buttons. What is the role of the Bible in our lives and in the lives of the country and culture? What did the Bible say about a subject, specifically? Do we actually care? Does context/translation matter? Is there a seeming conflict elsewhere, and if so, which weighs more? And we can’t forget the most important question: Now what?
In the book of Genesis, Jacob (whose name means, “he grasps the heel,” which doesn’t mean much to us now, but it also means “he deceives,” which does. Jacob’s story in Genesis illustrates this second meaning.) finds himself in the wilderness, all alone, with a “man.” Jacob asks this ‘man’ for a blessing, which gives us the clear hint that this is not an ordinary man. They wrestle all night and in the morning (after an unbelievably significant question about his name), the ‘man’ finally blesses Jacob, but not before he injures his hip. Jacob’s name is changed here, and becomes “Israel,” which means “one who wrestles/struggles with God.”
We can struggle with God, too. Right? And sometimes that struggle leaves us with a permanent limp. The Jewish people saw this struggle as absolutely vital to a life of faith. We don’t as much, we mostly want assent, agreement, conformity. I easily find doubt, questioning, and wrestling all over the Bible. It’s much more difficult to find assent and certainty.
Athol Dickson says: “What if God placed the paradoxes within the Scriptures to cause me to struggle for the truth? What if it is the struggle He desires as much as the truth itself?”
Haven’t you ever thought that Jesus could have pretty easily cleared up a lot of our questions? Maybe instead of answering with more questions (inviting the one who asks into a conversation, a struggle), he could’ve just given us the straight answer, in plain words, with bullet points. And why does the Bible sometimes contradict itself? Couldn’t it have been far more instruction manual and far less poetry? More fact and less story?
I could have said, “this is the answer,” if I felt like being that guy, and shut that discussion down immediately. As they wandered around in the dark, throwing guesses and opinions against the wall, I could have said, “no,” or “that’s wrong,” if I happened to disagree, (or even “yes,” or “that’s right”) and they would have learned that this was no safe place, no place where their authentic searching engagement was valued, only their quiet acquiescence, their right-ness.
That’s what’s so inspiring and encouraging about this youth group conversation. They aren’t content to just take what they’ve been offered, they want to turn it over, around and upside down. They aren’t cool with being “the one who grasps the heel,” they’re willing to fight for the truth, and in the process, become “Israel.” And that fills me with more hope for our homes, communities and world than I can even begin to tell you.
2 weeks ago, my boys played in a basketball tournament called Sweep The Streets. This particular tournament was held on 6th street of the city next door to our tiny suburb.
We arrived early and didn’t have to look for signs or follow directions, the music blaring from loud speakers and the smell of hamburgers and sweat were plenty to guide us in. The 2 outside courts were packed with players from 7 local-ish high schools, lined with the lawn chairs of parents and coaches.
It was boiling hot in the sun, and there was very little shade. I set up my chair under the scorers table tent in silence, hoping to go unnoticed. The scorer at the table just happened to be the creator of the event and nothing would go unnoticed by him. But instead of chasing me out, leaving me burned crispy outside, he engaged me as if we were old friends. Together there for the day, we did become old friends. We both rooted for our surprisingly overachieving “scrappy” team, heartbroken as we lost 2 close contests; 1 in double overtime, 1 in the last seconds, both we were figured to be food for, whipped early, providing lots of playing time for the second- and third-strings.
It was an extraordinary day of basketball for a very young team who is forging a new identity as a tough, passionate brotherhood that will neither quit nor go quietly, if at all.
But it was the event that was truly striking to me, inspiring me by it’s existence. Of course, I had heard of street ball and famous city courts where legends play, but I also read the news and pass police officers at every school entrance in the smallest towns. We live in a world of locked doors and hopeless division, a basketball tournament for a crowd of boys could not have seemed a safe bet. I wonder how much resistance he faced, how many times he heard sentences beginning with “you can’t…” He must’ve heard legions of reasons why not, and how many measures he would have to take to keep everyone safe or, from the most pessimistic, alive.
And probably the naysayers would have been right. The sheer number of violent acts in Anytown, USA show us how little of a guarantee we actually have for security. So, get all of this testosterone together, competing on hot asphalt for a whole day, there was bound to be problems.
Not to mention, I had just emerged from a baseball season where the behavior was abysmal. Each night of games was an embarrassment full of coaches and players acting like escaped animals with no concept of perspective, class or sportsmanship. My expectations were low.
Everyone who came inside the fences shook my new friend’s hand, every one seemingly a cherished old friend. The affinity and respect for him was obvious. The games were well played, hard fought, and free of the cocky fearful inadequacy that colors so much of youth sports, the cheeseburgers were excellent, bathrooms clean, sunshine brilliant, and the company was much much better.
As I was reflecting on just how beautiful this entire situation, and the man who organized and made it run so smoothly, was, it occurred to me why I found it so new & inspiring and yet oddly familiar. We can think God exists only in our ornate buildings with fancy offering plates and smoke machines, from 10-12 on Sunday mornings, where we are reciting Bible verses and singing hymns. We can think church takes place in pews, under stained glass. But again and again, we are proved wrong. God is not, and will not be, confined to walls and ceilings. The Church, The Bride of Christ, isn’t a place at all, it is simply the people, you and me, our neighbors, the workers at the grocery store, the runners on the street, teachers in the schools, anywhere and everywhere. And the local church is on street corners just as well as it is in little white buildings with orange signs and cracked parking lots.
The boys were exercising the gifts they’ve been given, (all different, working like parts of a body), together, as it was meant to be in the Garden in Genesis 1 & 2. That’s why it felt so good, like home (like Home). It’s what we were created for, this community, all functioning in God’s grace, under God’s binding sun, in glorious shalom. We all knew it, we didn’t want it to ever end, even if maybe we didn’t know why. This was the Kingdom breaking through, speaking fresh words, testifying to the new creation right in the middle of this one. And all that’s left is for us to notice and humbly offer up our praise and gratitude.