This past weekend, I participated in the Community of Christ's retreat that focused on the theme of "Blessing our Children and Future Generations." It was an intergenerational dialogue, with small group sessions. Thursday evening was an informal meeting where young adults were able to share our experiences in the church and with other churches with the older generation (the Boomers) and the world church's Young Adult Ministries Formation Specialist (I think that's her job title) Erica Nye.
For Saturday, the participants (120 or so people), were divided into circles of 6 to 8 people. There were more older generation participants than young adults and youth, but each circle was guaranteed at least one younger generation. We were paired up with someone else in which we had to select from a list of five questions which one we wanted to answer. We had fifteen minutes to share our experience with our partner, then spent the other fifteen minutes listening to our partner share his or her experience. Then we had to share our partner's experience to the rest of our circle. I thought this was a very effective idea because it forces you to listen to the other person so you can relate their experience accurately to the rest of the group.
I was paired with a lady I never met before who attends the Garden Grove congregation in Vancouver, Washington. She's a realtor, so I know who to contact if I ever have money to buy a house someday. I didn't ask her age, but I would say that she was in her 60s, maybe 70s. She related her experience of meeting her current husband, who was the complete opposite of her first husband. She had gone to college as a young lady and was a cheerleader who fell in love with the captain of the football team and dropped out of college as soon as they got married. I could tell by how attractive she is at her current age that she must have been really attractive as a young lady. She made her first marriage sound like it was one of those "Ken and Barbie perfection"--all image (cheerleader marries captain of the football team!) and little depth. What really intrigued me about this lady is that she had met her current husband when they were working at the same place. She went to him for consultation on how to deal with a difficult employee (he was a mental health counselor). Thus began a friendship that eventually evolved into a relationship. She doesn't remember when things progressed to the next level, but something that had a lot to do with it is that she was attracted to his compassion and spiritual depth!
When she related all this to me, I was truly touched for several reasons. I'm of the belief that I think the best relationships begin as friendships that evolve into a deeper romantic relationship. Unfortunately, everytime I've tried this, I've always been stuck in the friendship phase with the lady not wanting to possibly "ruin" the friendship, which is a laugh because when they become involved with someone else, the friendship died anyway. The other thing that touched me was the idea that this beautiful former cheerleader who married the "type" she was possibly "expected" to marry by 1950s society found that relationship to be shallow and sought something deeper and found it.
I've put out a couple personal ads on craigslist but get very few responses. I'm thinking that my spirituality scares ladies away, but if I want to attract the right person into my life, I have to be upfront about how important living a spiritually authentic life means to me. I've responded to ads where the woman presented herself as being spiritual only to discover to my horror that it was a "bait and switch." This happened to horrific effect two years ago when I learned that the woman who claimed to be spiritual was more interested in sadomasochistic and bondage/humiliation sexuality which is so not my thing. I hate bait and switch with a passion. Be who you say you are and don't waste people's time! Interesting enough about that situation is that the lady who put out the ad said that if she stated what she was really into, she was afraid she'd hear from the freaks! Duh. So, she thought she could find a spiritual guy who shares her kink. It was a major turnoff. I haven't given up hope though. I will find that special spiritually compatable lady once I get my career on track.
Anyhow, back to the small group session. This is the question I decided to answer:
Think about a person who has had a significant positive impact on your life. Describe a particular time when that person's influence helped you deal with difficult times in your life. Who was that person and why were they in your life? What was it about that person's way of being with you that helped you in that time?
Here's what I told my partner:
First, backstory. When I lived in West Germany as a teenager, the nearest church congregation met too far away to attend each week, so my dad made me attend the local protestant chapel and the youth program each Sunday. I hated going but my dad gave me a choice: go or forfeit my allowance for the week. So I went. The gatherings were pretty predictable, we would have fun and games first then move into the religious devotion. When we played games like kickball or basketball, the youth leader was a big guy, a GI who played to win. He would always knock me down or played rough and never apologized. I was mad about this because what I experienced at church camp and activities growing up is that people played in the spirit of fun without keeping track of who's winning. This guy didn't care who he hurt in his obsession with winning. And it was kind of odd that some grown adult was obsessed with beating a bunch of teenagers. When we got into the religious message about Jesus, I was further turned off because everything he said was already negated by his behaviour on the gym floor. The other thing that bothered me is that we would go to youth rallies where they would have fun and games. When the serious portion came, people would ask me "are you saved?" Growing up in this church, I didn't know what this meant. I would respond, "I'm baptized. Does that count?" To which the reply came, "but are you saved?" That they didn't consider my baptism as "being saved" really bothered me.
Flash forward to my senior year. I'm in a government class with a male teacher (Thomas Malone) who sparks my interest in government and international issues. I come to admire him because of his interest in his students opinions, his goofy sense of humour, and his overall trustworthiness. Then about a month into the school year came the shock when I open the newspaper on the day he was absent from school to read an article that he was a leader of a local atheist group that was sponsoring a conference in Atlanta for atheists nationwide. I was shocked and devastated by the news because at the time, I thought of atheists as immoral, evil, untrustworthy, and the equivalent of child molesters. After getting over the shock, I decided to spend the rest of my senior year devoted to "saving him for Christ." We had many after school dialogues about religion and sometimes I'd try to embarrass him in class by making snide jokes and comments about his atheism. He handled me like a pro, never losing his temper, often laughing along. He treated me with respect, kindness, and tolerance. In the process, I eventually accepted his atheism and his views had a greater impact on me, making me question God, religion, and the religious claims about God.
Because I was a student of his, I became a more tolerant person and to this day, I can still be defensive whenever I hear an evangelical rip into a minority religious group or an atheist. I also believe that it is possible for an atheist to be "spiritual" even if he or she won't admit it. And if I could admire an atheist and trust one, why wouldn't God? I am who I am today because I was a student of Tom Malone in 1989-1990. To this day, no other person has influenced my life as much as he has. The last time I talked with him was in 2006 (after not having contact for nearly six years) and I learned that he has moved in a Buddhist direction, though he still doesn't believe in God. I don't think he'll ever view God as a "person" because of his overly religious and intolerant mother and his scientific mind, but I don't believe God is offended either. If you've ever seen the film Dead Poets Society, then you know how Tom Malone is. I saw that film after I had been in Malone's class for a few months and was shocked by how similar Robin Williams character was to Malone's personality and teaching style. To this day, I cannot see this film without thinking back to my senior year.
Anyhow, that's the story I shared. My partner shared it with the group. Then we had to vote which of the six people's stories to share with the larger group. I was hoping that they would want to share mine because my group found it funny that a 17 year old was just arrogant enough to try to convert a 30-something year old atheist teacher. Yeah, that was me back then. It represented the residue of the "brainwashing" I got from the evangelical group my father made me attend as a teenager.
For the afternoon session, we shared our ideas of what our church might look like in the future, what kind of things we would like to see more of in our worship service. My partner, even though she was of a different generation, surprised me by her similar desires to see more creativity in church. She hates the traditional "hymn sandwich" as some people call it. She'd love to hear more contemporary music, and even holding a "service" by helping to build a house one Sunday afternoon. After we shared our ideas with our circle, each circle shared their ideas with the larger group. It was an interesting session with common ideas.
By the end, I think I made a friend for life. And to think that I was mildly hesitant to this when I saw how they were pairing people up. I admit that I can sometimes be a "generationalist" where I prefer to be among my own generation than spend time talking with older people. I get trapped into thinking that the older generation is too much into maintaining the status quo to be open to the new ideas of the younger generation. My partner proved that view wrong! Now she's looking forward to the church service I volunteered the MAYA group for in February. I had mentioned to her "The Lord's Prayer" sung in the South African music style that I used in one of my sermons from ten years ago. Now, she wants to hear it in a church service. So, I'll be planning the worship service for Garden Grove Congregation in February.
The weekend turned out better than I thought it would. I'm even more enthused about the exciting changes our church is undergoing as people of our generation move into the leadership roles that will change the direction of our mission.