Our Stories This Story: The Youth

I recommend reading/listening to the sermon from Ash Wednesday, which functions as an introduction to this Lenten series. you can access it here.

Psalm 91:9-11  Because you have made the Lord your refuge, and the Most High your habitation, There shall no evil happen to you, neither shall any plague come near your dwelling. For God shall give God’s angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways.

Introduction

“They have no idea what they’re doing. None. I look around and see the violence, I watch these people run the world, and I’m convinced they’re blind. Can’t they see that these old systems just don’t work and that something must change or I’ll lose my future? Do they even care?! …I mean, I think my parents try but…I don’t know…I fear for them, too. How much more will they be able to bear to try to prevent the inevitable from happening? I mean, we’re doomed right? I might be young, but I can at least see that…I’m exhausted. I’m young and exhausted and I fear I’m practically burnt out.”

From the Ash Wednesday Sermon 3.2.22

We’ve become a people who passes on mess rather than story.

We are all born into the beauty and mess of the world of our parents and grandparents. We receive a world that is in process and are told that its progress is due to previous generations, and even if it’s not perfect, the new generation is to move it forward on that line of progress and clean up the mess of those who were here before participating in this process. But that idea is a myth. The problem being that we have a hard time discerning between systems bent against survival and those able to create realms of thriving. By picking up and carrying on while cleaning up—just as they did before—we participate not in the process of making things better but perpetuating systems that are inherently flawed. If this is so, then nothing is actually getting better and we are thrusting the entire kit and kaboodle further into death and despair.

When we just pick up just because it’s handed to us, we receive it as normal and as “always been”. Then, we, the adults, become so far in it’s hard to see what’s wrong. If you are in a building with a foundation that is giving way, it’s the person external to the building, the new person who enters the building, who notices the problem and not those who have grown accustomed to the slow and steady nearly invisible alterations of the building. Same thing goes for our world and society and the systems in place running everything: those who are newer to this world, to society, to our approach to life—the young—see things in a different light. This is why the youth come to dinner tables eager to dream and dare and put words to problems through questions and rough insight. It’s the energy and zeal of the young who surge into rooms and spaces and try to remind tired and burned out adults that there was once a story.

When it’s our perceived responsibility to pass on systems as they are rather than stories of what things could be, then the challenging “Why?” of the youth is met with condescension and rejection. We respond to their questions and inquiries, their challenges and dares by dismissing them as byproducts of overzealous youthful vim and vigor because we despise being waked into our storylessness and being reminded that we’ve long buried our stories in the ground because the world told us to, that such dreaming and hoping was pointless. In this way we cease passing on our stories because we’ve lost our stories to our pain. And, instead, we pass on our pain and wounds and demoralization…we pass on flawed and harmful systems. If I was beaten down, then you will be too, that’s just the way the world works.

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.”

Deuteronomy 26:3-9

In our passage from Deuteronomy, Moses, inspired by the spirit of God, proclaims prophetically to the people who are about to take up residence in the long-awaited promised land to recite the story of God’s dealing with God’s people. One of the most fundamental and recurring themes here is remembering what God has done. Israel, through Moses, is exhorted to remember and recall and recite the story of God’s great deliverance of the captives. Israel is to hold to this story; not in a dogmatic and dead fashion, but as a living and thriving narrative. This story is to remind them that God is for them, that God is their God and they are God’s people. This story is to be remembered and shared, passed on from one generation to another. And through the sharing of this story, hope and possibility and promise and life are passed on from one generation to another.

Throughout Deuteronomy, Moses exhorts the Israelites to contemplate the revelation of God made known in the giving of the law and the liberation of Israel from captivity in Egypt day and night all the days of their life, and to share these very laws and stories with their children. Discussions were supposed to happen; questions asked and answers given. In passing on this story, the children would then make this story theirs, and in this way this God of their parents would become their God, too—not a strange and unfamiliar God, but one whom they knew from the beginning and into whose story they could see themselves participating and not merely observing. In passing on the story—this story about a God who liberates the captives, unburdens the oppressed, and cares for the homeless, hungry, and naked—Israel passes on the hope and dreams of the story that resonate with the fuel and fire of the youth that this world can be better. In passing on the story, the old share with the young their wisdom and what they’ve learned. In passing on the story, the young add to it offering different perspectives and views on how this liberation, unburdening, and care manifest in their age now. It’s this process of sharing story that is to be passed on; not the death grip to human made systems long expired and past their time.

Conclusion

One of my favorite theologians, Helmut Gollwitzer,[1] argues that age needs youth and youth needs age. Or phrased differently: energy inspires wisdom and wisdom guides energy. In the preface to his book, The Rich Christian & Poor Lazarus, Gollwitzer expresses gratitude for the impact the youth, the students, have on his life and the world. I’ll quote a portion here:

“This book is dedicated to the students of Berlin. By this I mean those who, among many thousands who attend the universities of West Berlin, are responsible for the fact that Berlin has for some time now been censured or praised as a place of unrest. I mean especially those of their spokesmen with whom in recent years I have come in contact, and who go in and out of my house. In contrast with many of my contemporaries and colleagues, who regard them with deep antipathy or at least shake their heads over them in bewilderment, I have come love them for their sincerity, their courage, their feeling for freedom, their sense of responsibility for the future, and their dream of a more human society. I have received from them encouragement, instruction, and the stimulus for new thought, and they, I hope have benefited from some of the things that I and my friends have had to say in criticism and correction…”[2]

Helmut Gollwitzer

What beautiful words of mutual affirmation. Gollwitzer writes, “I have come to love them for their sincerity, their courage, their feeling for freedom, their sense of responsibility for the future, and their dream of a more human society.” I deeply, deeply believe that when we bring our young ones to the table and give them a vital and necessary place to talk and engage with us, we will stop passing on the mess of flawed and violent systems. I believe we will be called back to our stories of liberation and freedom and hope and life and we will be exhorted to dream with them that maybe, just maybe, things don’t have to be as bad as they are. Until then, we will continue to be complicit and held captive in these systems that are killing not only us but also the hope and dreams and future of the young.


[1] A great text on Gollwitzer is Dr. W. Travis McMaken’s text Our God Loves Justice: an introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017.

[2] Helmut Gollwitzer The Rich Christians & Poor Lazarus Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1970. x-xi

Our Stories This Story

Ash Wednesday Sermon

Psalm 103: 1-2, 6, 8 Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless [God’s] holy Name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all [God’s] benefits. The Lord executes righteousness and judgment for all who are oppressed. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.

***

They have no idea what they’re doing. None. I look around and see the violence, I watch these people run the world, and I’m convinced they’re blind. Can’t they see that these old systems just don’t work and that something must change or I’ll lose my future? Do they even care?! They’re just consumed with themselves and their money and their luxury. It’s nice that they have it…will I? I mean…I fall asleep wondering: will the world burn from ecological devastation from their ignorance and utilitarian world view? Or will we burn up because pride and hubris apparently have no limit with these people who call themselves adults, theoneschargedtocarefortheworldandformeandhereIamjustangryandfrustratedANDI’MTIREDOFTHISSUBTERRENEANSURGINGFEARANDHOPELESSNESS…*inhales and exhales* I mean, I think my parents try but…I don’t know…I fear for them, too. How much more will they be able to bear to try to prevent the inevitable from happening? I mean, we’re doomed right? I might be young, but I can at least see that…I might be young, but I know what it feels like to carry a burden in silence…I might be young, but my rage is real…I might be young, and that doesn’t mean my energy tinged with optimism—that maybe just maybe if we pull our heads out of… the ground we could change the course of this dumpster fire!—that hope doesn’t mean I’m foolish….I’m exhausted. I’m young and exhausted and I fear I’m practically burnt out.

***

I like to think I know what I’m doing. I mean at least the kids…. Yes, honey, your shoes are over there by the front door…the kids need me to look like I know what I’m doing. Especially now. There are so many reasons…Hey! Put the cat down…she’s not a ball! There’s so much to consider and contemplate, and if I dare to really let it sink in *sips wine* about how bad our world is right now I may just never come … Well, if you take the 2 and then add it to the 6, what’s the answer then? *sips wine* I just don’t know what is going to come down the road…and I don’t know if I can hold whatever it is in my body long enough to protect them from it. *sips wine* why can’t they just wash their plates? And then what do I do with it; I feel like some sponge built for absorbing all this … Oh gosh, the dog needs to be let out…poor thing…These kids, they’re young and need a future, a world, free from visible and invisible enemies and…Oh no, you did fall down! Here, let me get some ice…Sometimes I fear that I’ll crack under all this pressure *sips wine*…not the pressure of feeling like I need to be perfect, I don’t think I believe that myth, *sips wine* but the pressure that somehow the world is really I guess you can have one cookie before dinner, but more than that and you’ll lose your appetite… *refills glass* I don’t feel that old but I’m bone deep exhausted; nearly burnt out.

***

Everyday I do the same thing but I don’t think I know what I’m doing. I wonder if they know what they’re doing… Sometimes I just can’t help but watch my colleagues shuffle about as if nothing is wrong as long as they get theirs, as if this is all normal and good. Talk about putting lipstick on a pig. I mean *chuckles* the things they say to me … *sigh* … I can barely talk about it without getting mad…Honestly, how is any of this good? I remember, when I was in high-school…man, I really loved the stage and acting. But where’s the money in that? I feel the drudgery of the demands of life—the demands of just trying to survive—weighing down on me, dragging me down, stealing something vital from me… my soul? My energy? My mind? I don’t know what, but so many years in, sitting here, doing this same thing for so many hours for so many days for what? for why? Just to live? Just to eat? Just to have a house? Just to have health? And I don’t even have that…this demand to produce, to work, to earn, requires me to neglect my health and wellbeing… Is it irony that they give me some form of healthcare? Do they know that I’ll need it as I lose my vitality to this process, to their demands? *chuckles* I’m gaining weight as I’m wasting away, selling my self to some ambiguous and invisible entity, some myth… I feel trapped. Hamsters in a wheel have it better than I do…at least they think they’re going somewhere; I’ve realized I’m stuck, empty, and burnt out.

***

I have enough years under my belt to feel the conflict of knowing what I’m doing and not knowing what I’m doing. Or maybe I should say: I’m old enough to know I once thought I knew what I was doing. Now, I’m not so sure I did. I wish I had done some things differently, maybe though a bit longer about certain things? I don’t know. Age has its benefits, hindsight is 20/20, and my body really hurts. Getting up and moving just isn’t the same now. It’s like my body is not only quitting on me but actually betraying me. Almost trapped sometimes. Learning to live in a slower fashion is hard; where’d my energy go and where did all these lines come from? I think I frowned too much…or that’s what my face tells me. Or maybe I’m frowning too much now *looks off for a moment* Yes, I’ve seen humanity get through war and violence; I’ve seen social unrest sooth; I think I’ve even seen progress be made through struggle and fight, but now I don’t know…did I imagine it? *winces* Gosh, my heart breaks for the younger generations; I feel their pain so deeply. I wish I could share hope but I don’t know if they’d listen, or if they even want to hear from me, or do I even have hope? Sometimes I feel like they just don’t have a use for me or for my stories or my experience and learned wisdom…I do care, deeply…honestly, sometimes I cry…I cry from regret, I cry from frustration, I cry wishing I could make things better…but I just feel pointless, shuffled off to the side, in the way, my fire and flame are gone, I’m burnt out.

***

I think they’re all pretending like they know what they are doing. But I sit here and watch them walk by…this one with their fancy boots and jacket and many bags…I see you. Do you see me? Across the street, those people dine in that restaurant, I watch them laugh; they look so confident, all warm and satiated. I watch them leave and I can sense their anxiety as they walk by me. I think it’s the side eye they give me. *chuckles* Like, if they don’t really look at me I don’t exist. I exist…no matter how much you look or don’t look. And I am hungry, and I am cold *shivers* and I am lonely. Never hearing your name does something to a person. Being someone’s shame also does something to a person. I’m a person. Sometimes I forget that I am because I get lost in being ignored; I get trapped in their blindness. When I lost everything material did I lose also my being, my personhood, my body and arms and legs and identity with humanity? They treat me like I have. I think I scare them; or maybe my present terrifies their future….*shrugs* But life is precarious. I mean, what if I did choose this or made some choices that landed me here or maybe I didn’t have any choice in it and this is just how it ended up…am I less human? I don’t have a job, or a house, or food, or … why do I feel bad and shameful because of that? Why do I feel pointless, superfluous, nothing better than kindling fuel for the fires that keep them warm, Maybe I’m better off burnt up…

***

Isaiah 58:3c-4, 6-9

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.

Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;

your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

The Big Engine Who Thought She Could Not

There was once a big engine that could, so she thought.

Until, one day, she decided she definitely could not.

Her eyes traveled along the track up the great, big hill.

The daunting task engulfed her; steam puffs went still.

She grit her teeth and tried to gather from inside,

But the biggest problem was that her fire had died.

All alone on her track and without support to be found,

Her momentum slowed, then her wheels made no sound.

They stopped rolling forward; they went completely dead on the track.

All the work and the fight had worn her thin; she felt her morale slack.

An incredible exhaustion seized upon her tired frame fast

Until she started rolling backward, her forward-part last.

Anxious panic set in. What should I do? Where should even I start?

The bend was nearing, so she gripped the track with all her heart.

She caught herself in time before hitting the deadly, sharp turn;

But, man, did that friction between wheel and rail begin to burn.

She held still and began to regain her steely, metal composure,

When something caught her eye down below the steep shoulder.

Up the steep climb a small engine came huffing,

Wheels slowly turning and steam clouds puffing.

The small engine stopped to take a quick needed breather,

And the bigger engine turned so she could clearly see her.

Then their eyes met and locked together in knowing;

The smaller was following where the bigger was going.

“You shouldn’t proceed…” the big one said. “This path is quite frightful.”

The smaller smiled and replied, “But I hear the view is quite delightful.”

“Plus,” the small train started then stopped and then continued to speak,

“I never knew an engine built like us could even consider going to the peak;

Then I watched you start climbing higher and higher!”

Silence fell; the big engine felt something stir inside her.

The little one to the big spoke again, words fast embolding;

The big one leaned in toward the little she was beholding.

“And it’s not just me who has been inspired by your acts…”

Just then more chugging was heard below on the tracks.

More engines were weaving and wending up the treacherous mountainside.

She watched these little trains climb, inspired by how they worked and tried.

“I’ve been at this all wrong….” The thought began to grow in her mind.

“I’ve been looking for help from the side and ahead and not from behind.”

Her gaze returned to the tracks she was desperately clinging upon,

“Maybe…” she thought to herself. “Maybe for them I can climb on?

Even if it’s only an inch or two farther that I can offer,

It’ll be one less inch or two they will have to fight for.

She closed her eyes and gathered up her remaining bits of strength.

“For them…” She grit her teeth, bore down, and powered a length.

“For her…” and she went forward…covering more distance!

What had begun to stir was a full-fledged fire in an instance!

And on the train chugged and huffed,

Engine strong and steam clouds puffed.

There once was a big engine that gave into thinking that she could not;

Until one day a smaller engine reminded her she could, so she fought.

Curves

I hold the curve of your face in the curve
Of my hands.
My course skin against yours young;
Yang’s coarse to soft yin,
Yin’s aged bronze to yang’s nascent tin.

I hold the curve of your face in the curve
Of my hands,
And I explore the unchartered territory of your eyes;
Wisdom searches among youthful vivacity,
Sorrow and regret met by innocence and tenacity.

I hold the curve of your face in the curve
Of my hands,
Look at me: I pray you never know the pain I do;
Energetic eyes bounce back, they sparkle and prance,
The eyes that know too much slow the dance.

I hold the curve of your face in the curve
Of my hands,
I know you’ll hide pain deep, away, and aside;
I’ve witnessed other teens who sit at my tables and chairs
Making me false promises of being aloof and without cares.

I hold the curve of your face in the curve
Of my hands,
Your face reflects to me what I hope: contentment;
A smile to cover the fear and confusion
Able to create, cause, and confirm the illusion.

I hold the curve of your face in the curve
Of my hands,
I never want to let you have your own suffering;
But what is the journey without the dark side of life,
How would wisdom ever be formed without the fire of strife?

I hold the curve of your face in the curve
Of my hands,
One more caressing moment before death pulls me completely in;
Fingers weak and frail, merely bones skin covered,
Recall the first day you they held and tenderly, nimbly mothered.

You hold the curve of her face in the curve
Of your hands,
Your course skin against hers young;
Yang’s coarse to soft yin,
Yin’s aged bronze to yang’s nascent tin.