Saturday, July 5, 2008

Chapter Four: Joy to the World

Each time I attended a North Carolina Conference Youth Event, I found myself with something more than just quality role models. Each time, I found myself among peers who I adored. As we grew up together, that would become more and more important.

Just after I moved to the Greater Saxapahaw, NC area, I attended my third Summer Breakaway. It constantly struck me that the Louisburg College campus felt more familiar to me than the place I was suddenly supposed to call home. I never really got all the way past that initial feeling either. My time in Alamance County mostly saw me feeling like an outsider, even in the churches I was attending.

You'd think that with Mom and Dad serving different churches I'd have been able to find some good folks to enjoy my time there with. You'd be wrong. In one church, the only other person in the UMYF that was really even close to my age abandoned the weekly meetings pretty quickly. At the other one, I felt like I was reading a different Bible than most of the people involved - and it was very clear that I'd been raised with very different values. I certainly had friends at school. Good friends. None of them were too inclined to engage in Jesus talk for too long, though. When they did, it was very rarely in a supportive fashion.

Over the years at the Conference Events, though, I'd stockpile friendly and familiar faces. If we'd gone to the same school, we would have been scattered among several cliques. When we came together as youth of faith, though, who we were the rest of the year didn't seem to matter to us.* In between the normal trouble close-knit groups of teenagers can get into, we'd spend afternoons and evenings at a time enjoying conversations about the faith we shared and what it meant to the world around us. I'd found the community I felt was so important and with each event we grew closer as a group and my faith was explored in a place where I felt no judgment. Here, my faith became more personal even as it came to me in a shared environment.

The events would end. People would hug and say their good-byes. Then we'd go to Pizza Hut. We'd hug and say our good-byes again, and that would be that. Aside from the occasional letter (or phone call if you were supremely lucky - calls meant long distance rates and Facebook was still a long way away), you'd have to wait until the next event.

In the meantime, I had to go back. Back to the normal social nonsense that comes with high school. Back to UMYF meetings that felt like I was discussing an alien religion (eventually, I'd just shut up during these meetings rather than endure some of the sideways glances I'd least there were still occasional football, volleyball, or basketball games to participate in). Back to friends who didn't understand what this whole thing meant to me. Back home. Out of the bubble.

Trying to live as I did in these places never lasted long without the support those who I'd come to love so much around me for encouragement. The things I'd resolved in that company would start to crumble as I was constantly challenged from a lot of angles. I started to question whether or not my faith was actually workable outside the bubble.

Eventually, I would always come to the same conclusion. My faith was useless if it only worked in the safe places. We weren't there so we could get our Jesus in, get out, rinse, and repeat. We were there to take what we learned each time out into the world. It mattered that we did it. More importantly, it mattered how we did it.

Sometimes more damaged than other times, I always managed to come out of the challenges to who I was as a young Christian with my faith in tact. I would later learn that this had a pretty positive effect on some who witnessed it. It wasn't anything I said. It wasn't anything in particular that I did. It certainly wasn't beating anyone over the head with my beliefs. I adopted then, and still try my best to adhere to, a policy of not sharing too much without first being asked (but once you ask, all bets are off). Simply keeping the faith through sometimes punishing lines of questions (from people who I will only 11 years after the fact admit were much, much smarter than I was) is what impressed some of those same questioners into finding out more on their own.

I'm in the middle of a book called Jesus for President. Almost from the outset, this book strives to point out that Jesus' teachings were very rooted in the language, social structure, and politics of the world he lived in. To fully understand his teachings, you have to be aware of these things. He used jokes. He used puns (puns!).

People like to think that Jesus was speaking in timeless allegories that need nothing more than the book in which they've been collected to understand them. But just as I found that the Christian faith doesn't work only in the bubble, Jesus' teachings don't exist in a vacuum. While his themes and points were very much timeless, the specific words were rooted in the land where those ministries took place.

Jesus' teachings were for the people. Not the those in power in the Synagogues and not those who Rome placed in power, but the people. Jesus' church should be for the people, too.

*We'd find out in the years following high school that we'd formed what was perceived by those outside our little group as a pretty imposing and exclusive clique of our own. Yep. No one messes with the cool kids at church camp.

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