Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Required reading

I give my affirmation group homework each month, which usually involves reading a chapter from The Velvet Elvis and then sometimes there’s some short supplementary reading and a worksheet I make up—a few thought questions to answer. When we meet together as a group once a month, we discuss the chapter from the book and perhaps some of the other readings. And I ask them to turn in the worksheets.

I heard through the grapevine last week about one of the Affirmands telling another that she hadn't been reading the book. The advice she got back was: don't worry...just find something you can relate to in the discussion time and start talking about that and no one will be able to tell. "That's what I do," the advice-giver said. "And no one knows the difference."

Now, keep in mind, I'm not keeping score in Affirmation; no one is getting graded on a 4 point scale. It's not even Pass/Fail. It's just Pass and Pass. And whatever. So why the need to fake it? To pretend to do the reading? To act like the perfect student when you really aren't? To try to give the impression you're really into it, when you're really not?

There's a TV show on these days called "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" and though I've only watched an episode or two, my kids watch it some. There's a lot going on in these TV American Teenagers' lives. Mostly involving sex it seems. (Surprise, surprise.) Who's kissing someone they shouldn't? Who's sleeping with who? Who's pregnant? Is the pregnant girl's boyfriend going to come through for her, etc. etc. Of course when I was growing up it was "sex, drugs and rock n roll." The holy trinity of our disaffection and teenage rebellion. But, the point is, teenagers always rebel. Experiment. Push the boundaries. Test the limits. That's what it means to be a teenager, after all. It's a time for separation from parents and authority figures. A time to thumb your nose and see just how much you can get away with. And if you're not doing all the wild things, you're watching others do them, live and in person, or on stupid TV shows.

So in the major scheme of things, not doing the reading for Affirmation, seems like pretty small potatoes. And if that's the way some of the kids in this program want to rebel (versus staying out all night and smoking crack) hallelujah, bring it on.

On the other hand...I did feel a little sad when I heard about the deception -- the "pretend to do the reading, fake everyone out, seem like we're 'good' when we really aren't" thing going on in the group. Not sure why exactly. Maybe because I think that's what church can become for people for all their lives, not just as teenagers. The place we go with our "my life is all together" disguises on. It can become the place where no one is telling the truth, everyone is pretending to be happy and healthy or at least working on things that need fixing. It isn't often a place where people go and say, I don't want to love my neighbor, I'm no good at loving myself, I think God is a major SOB for saddling me with this or that, and expecting me to thank Him for it. I feel selfish and angry and unhappy and not at all "Christlike" thank you very much and I'm not sure I want to feel anything different. And NO I didn't do the required reading.

During Lent my family and I decided to give up sweets--sugary desserts, candy, ice cream, that sort of thing. And I'm not doing well with it. As soon as we decided this, I started craving sugary stuff more than ever. What I've said to people about it is that I wanted to give up sugar because I know I use sugar to medicate my feelings and help me feel like I can take care of things on my own. Being without sugar I thought would take me to this vulnerable place where I would be more aware of my needs and fears and sadness and loneliness and without my sugar crutch, I would turn to God, become closer to God.

What's happened though is that I've gotten into my secret American teenager life. I've started having sugar when my family isn't around, when no one is looking. I've been pretending to be good, and feeling bad because I'm not. I've been faking it, pretending to go along with the family, while at the same time plotting my next opportunity to sneak a Snickers bar or a Pop Tart. And why am I doing this--what do I get out of this? It's definitely a way to express anger. It's a secret way to express anger and disappointment with my life and with God. And the secretiveness of it seems to be a part of its charm. The thrill of it, I guess. We don't just lie, I suspect, because we are afraid of what would happen if we told the truth. Because frankly, not that much would happen to me if I told the truth to my family about the sugar. And nothing would happen if the kids in my Affirmation group who aren't doing the reading came out and said, I'm not doing the required reading. (It might actually be a good thing if they said that.) But we don't tell the truth I think because lying is exciting. Lying is fun. Lying gets our adrenaline rushing, and our heart racing and it gives us a secret smile, some sweet thing to hold onto that separates us and makes us feel special. Or maybe even more alive.

Are the secrets short lived jolts of "aliveness"? Sure. They are sugar highs. Only good for a little while, then you need another one. But sometimes the alternative, real honesty, feels too hard, too exhausting, too time-consuming and like too much work.

I've been thinking about writing a note to my Affirmand group this week. Just to tell them once again that the required reading in our program isn't really that required. To tell them again that this program is just for them, for their growth, to give them a time and space and a forum to talk about the big questions. A time to separate their faith from their parents' faith, to decide who they want to be in relationship to God, to see what they believe if no one is telling them what to believe. I don't know if it will matter, if anyone will open up and tell the truth about the fact that they aren't doing all the reading so we could talk openly about that.

I've also been thinking about what I'm learning this Lent is that I love to keep secrets. I thrive on secret rebellion. On looking good, on keeping the surface shiny and polished, while hiding what's just underneath that surface. And that maybe that's something I need to confess to my lovely little sugar-deprived family.

I might need to eat a Hershey bar first, though.

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