Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Losing my religion

Why do we stick with Christianity? And with the church? I was reading a thing on Beliefnet this morning about celebrities who've changed religions. And the majority of them had changed from some Christian denomination--Baptist, Methodist, Anglican--to something else...Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Scientology.

This is the question the Affirmation Group spent most of our time discussing on Sunday. Why do we stick with the whole Christian thing? And why do we think about chucking the whole thing? What might make you "lose your religion?" I asked everyone to write their reasons for staying with it and reasons for leaving it on sticky notes and we put them up on the wall. On two separate walls. Then another woman and I read the notes out loud for the whole group, one at a time, a reason to stay, a reason to go. The reasons to leave were things like: "Wondering if I'm believing a fairy tale," "God not answering my prayers," "It's boring and pointless to me." "Ministers who abuse children, emotionally, physically, sexually, spiritually." "Missionaries who care only for the soul and not for the whole person." "Christians who picket funerals, bomb clinics and hate those that are different." "Sometimes my parents push it on me." "Some Christians frown upon homosexuality and someone I love is bisexual." "Children are hungry, abused and dying. God and the church doesn't intervene." "It's messy."

The majority of what people listed as their reasons to stay were some variation on the theme of community and "The beauty of people caring for each other." There were a couple who admitted they were staying now because of "my family" or because of "tradition--it's all I know." Other reasons were "The idea of someone greater out there." "I really believe that God has to exist." "God is good, all the time." "Something positive, something there, all the time." "Selflessness." "The Church, when it gives up its power, in situations of race, class and money." "People who make significant sacrifices for their beliefs and to help others." One person wrote something I really liked, and really want to believe is true: "God is bigger than all the crap." "Hope" was a reason to stay someone else said. "Music" was also listed. I certainly resonated with that one--sometimes singing together in church on a Sunday morning makes life feel worth living to me.

One of my favorites was something someone wrote to be funny (maybe) but it also was honest I think, and maybe also more profound a reason than it seems at first glance. They wrote: "I like the bread." And isn't it sometimes as simple as that? I like the bread too. Not only the taste of it and that we stand there in a line and are fed together, but because we are fed bread and fed the idea that our spirits and our bodies matter, this world matters to God, we are reminded that we are all in this together and that God is encountered in the daily stuff of life, in the standing shoulder to shoulder, in the eating and drinking, in the hungers of our lives, in our need and our loneliness and our hope and longing.

And yes, I agree, most of the time, the whole Christian thing seems too messy. We've been doing this for thousands of years and we can't seem to get it right very often. But I keep coming back. For hope. For community. For the music. Because God does, amazingly enough, feel bigger than all the crap. And I come for the bread. Bread broken and shared. It tastes good.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The words of life

I was talking to one of the mentors last week about the experience she's been having with her "mentee" (or "Mento" as I like to call them). Her Mentee has had a hard time with the reading material and the homework and she's struggling to do her final project for Affirmation. And I'm the first to admit, the reading isn't easy. It's not a lot to read, but it's MORE--these kids lives are so busy and overscheduled that I know it's like ONE MORE THING TO DO. And the reading isn't light and breezy stuff either. It wasn't written for 14 year olds, so it's not always easy to grasp without paying a lot of attention and thinking about it. So I understand it could be difficult. And then the Affirmation project: I've asked each of the kids to do a project that expresses where they are in their spiritual journey--what questions are they asking, what kinds of things are they thinking about. The assignment is fairly open-ended and the final product could be just about anything. Some kids are doing videos, a couple are writing songs or making artwork. But this is a hard assignment, I know, because not only does the Affirmand have to figure out what he/she is thinking about in terms of faith, they need to come up with an interesting way of showing that. And then they actually have to produce it. Make something to demonstrate that. And the mentors have to help--they aren't responsible for doing the project but they need to help the Mentee figure out what shape the project might take, and help motivate and support them as they do it.

When this Mentor and I spoke last week I was trying to reassure her that what her Affirmand does or does not do in this program is not ultimately all that important. It's important that the Affirmand shows up. It's important that she, the Mentor, shows up and walks through this with them. I have no illusions that the kids will remember much of what they read or discussed during this program. I think they will remember we met together once a month and shared a meal and that it meant something. I think they will remember their mentor and that there was someone in the church, an adult not in their family, who was willing to take time away from their own families and work and lives to spend time with them. That there was an adult who wasn't obligated to, who actually cared about them.

Though there was much that was wrong and harmful to me about the ideology of the church I grew up going to, there were a few adults in that church who cared about me and let me know it. Adults who invited us teens into their house for pizza parties and guitar parties, who went with us on retreats as chaperones and made us laugh and laughed with us, who tolerated the nicknames we gave them and the personal questions we asked them. I remember my teenage years as being quite often a dark time. I called suicide hotlines a couple times. I almost ran away from home a couple times. I was depressed a lot and felt so horrible about myself that I thought I wouldn't survive at times. Of course, I'm not sure you would have known this if you were just giving me a passing glance. If most people could tell that this was my reality, they didn't let on. But I do remember one time in particular being at a church picnic. I was in a bad place that day, a bleak, sad, I'm nothing, what's the point, kind of place. Except of course, on the surface I was just humming along, playing the part of a good church kid at a nice summer church picnic. But out of the blue, one of the adults who hung out with the youth sometimes, came over to me, and stopped me in my tracks. I was playing with some of the little kids, trying to help keep them out of trouble and amused, and this woman came up to me and said, "I really like you, Lenora." And I said, "What? What was I doing?" And she said, "It wasn't something you were doing. I just wanted you to know that I really like you." And then she walked away. And that was that. Except I've never forgotten it. It happened about 40 years ago and I remember it as if it was yesterday. And I certainly wouldn't say that's why I'm a person who is still in the church today, who still tries in her own stumbling fumbling way to follow Jesus, someone who despite her best efforts at times, still feels like God is there and God cares...but those words at that moment in my life made a huge difference. And even if they aren't the only reason I'm still here plugging away at this whole faith thing, they are a big part of the reason.

So that's what I told that Mentor on the phone last week: The fact that you care about this girl, the fact that you spend time with her, that you enjoy her, that you "like" her, that's all that matters. Not the reading, not the project, not the homework, not the discussion. Just saying with your life and occasionally with actual words, "I really like you," that's all that matters. That's all I really needed in my heart of hearts when I was 14. That's all I suspect these kids really need from any of us today.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Just scratches.

It's getting near the end of the school year and the stress level is rising. There are projects due and tests coming, big tests, tests that count for a third of your grade. And there are spring sports going on, practices to attend, games to win, and for these 8th graders in my group, graduation from middle school is not far away, along with the graduation dance (which may be the most stressful event of all). And then there's high school next year. And all the fears about that: will you get in classes with good teachers and with some people who are your friends? Will you be able to get good grades, keep up with homework, find your way around--literally not get lost and end up crying like a blubbering idiot as you wander some back hallway somewhere, and also not get lost as in having no friends, having no idea who you are or what you're doing or where you fit in--in that new place.

I get so caught up in my own stress--will I have a job tomorrow, will I have enough money to put my kids through college, will I be able to not embarrass myself totally in that meeting, am I being a good mother, wife, friend, human being, oh yeah and "Christian," will I get sick and die young, am I doing what I'm supposed to be doing with my life, what does it all mean, what does it all matter, why is my house never clean, what am I doing with my life--that sometimes it's hard to see past that, to see that these kids are ready to explode with all the anxiety and it's very real and very scary for them.

And I guess the question for them and me is do we believe God cares and God takes care of us? That is one of the hardest things for me to believe, frankly. It's not that hard for me to believe that there is a Higher Power out there, a God who cares about the course of history, who stands with the poor and oppressed, who wants justice and mercy and kindness to permeate our world. What's hard to believe is that God cares about ME, my little problems, the things that keep me awake at night. And why would God take the time and energy to care for me when there are so many people who need so much more at the moment--who don't know where their next meal is coming from, who are dying of AIDs, alone in a hut in Africa, when there are kids being bombed, and girls being raped and sold into prostitution, when there are homeless people and people with cancer and soldiers on front lines, and presidents who are responsible for millions of lives. I am such small potatoes. My stresses and these kids' stresses, while real to us, are like scratches on someone with a giant open wound on their body. The scratches aren't where you start. The scratches pretty much can heal by themselves.

So I don't know how much God notices me. Or notices these "basically everything is all right" teenagers under my care. When I am at my best, I notice the kids, and I care, and maybe that's the way it works. God puts people like me and like these kids' mentors and parents in their lives to pay attention, to see them and walk with them, and hold their hands when they are afraid, to rub their back when they strike out in softball, to take them dress shopping for the big dance and call the dean at the high school to make sure they are going to be in the right classes, to tell them everything is gong to be all right, somehow, someway, to tell them we're not in charge, but God is, even though it doesn't seem like it all the time. And they will survive this time in their lives, this stress. And no matter what, we say, we'll be there for them. And we make sure that it's true.

Maybe that's the way it works. And maybe that's enough.