Today is my birthday. I have been fortunate to accompany aging with a way of staying in touch with young people. It has been a nice way to temper my anger and disappointment about the current state of American politics with a little hope for the future. I would prefer to be able to do this with regular discussions with grandchildren the way it was done when the generations were less geographically mobile.
My grandchildren, all of them, now live over a thousand — some of them two thousand — miles from us. Their periodic visits offer only limited opportunity to have the kind of conversations that would allow me to explore the world from their vantage point.
If I were to sit here in the evenings getting only the news from Washington and other parts of the deteriorating world, I would be constantly moving between depression and anger. How did our generation let this happen?
We allowed the democratic process to be manipulated in such a way that a person with no knowledge or appreciation of how our government works wound up in its most powerful position. He is objectively racist in his core, selfish and self-centered to a nauseating degree, unlearned in the basic literature of democratic enlightenment, and incompetent in the skills of governing. All that has been well covered in the news for anyone who is willing to dig a little and read beyond the superficialities of cable TV, social media, and the National Enquirer.
So, how do I stay in touch with the young generation? I spend my Sunday evenings with Methodist youth of junior high and high school age. My role with them is simple and undemanding. I do not teach or counsel. I make no preparations before I show up there. I do have to be a responsible adult and, if you watch the news, you know that being a responsible adult in the presence of young people is not something we can afford to take for granted. Thus, our United Methodist Church requires that we always have at least two responsible adults on hand at any gathering of children and youth. We call it our safe sanctuary program.
In our case, there is a paid professional youth director who is a sharp tack, seminary educated and just hyperactive and loud enough himself to make himself heard over a roomful of twenty and more pizza-charged, electronically wired, over-stimulated teenagers. He does the preparation, teaching, game playing and feeds their bodies and spirits for the two hours we are with them on Sunday nights. He does an exceptional job of it.
My job: be there. Always present. Ever at the ready to assert moral authority if it is ever called for. But I can tell you that in my five years of providing this presence, it never has been necessary. This has left me the luxury of just listening in.
And, oh the things we can learn from the generations we have spawned. We should listen to them more and preach to them less.
That is not to say that they know it all, although some are quite confident that they do, just as I was when I was a member of the MYF in the 50s and 60s. (That stands for Methodist Youth Fellowship for you wet behind the ears United Methodists.)
Last week our professional youth director, made sure they were full on hot dogs and brownies, entertained with a big room game he called noodle hockey (imagine those swimming pool floating noodles being used as hockey sticks by twenty super-energized teenagers divided into two teams chasing a light rubber dodgeball trying to put it under a table “goal” swinging their noodles wildly and harmlessly all the while) then he sat them all down in what we call the couch room for a discussion topic he titled, simply, “Uncertain”.
And what do you think he encountered when he opened up that discussion?
Well, of course — certainty. And lots of it. And it was certainty with many different and conflicting moral views. Certainty about free will and their right to self-determination. Certainty about their right to make moral choices on their own using something they all seemed to agree was a useful tool, their “moral compass”.
That must have seemed pretty deep to the young ones. But the older gentleman observing their discussion (that would be me) was thinking, “Now there’s the ticket to repeating this mess for another generation, if they last that long.”
“It’s exactly the kind of thing we were thinking when I was their age,” I thought. “And you see the wonderful harvest of social and economic policy, it got us, not to mention the environmental disaster we are now living and dying with.” As they talked about the beauties of free will, I could almost smell the smoke from the burning Amazon rain forests.
But then, their theologically trained youth director stepped in and pointed out that they were all talking about this thing they called a “moral compass” as if it had some independent existence. Something you might shop for at Whole Earth Provision. “But there ain’t no such thing,” he told them. He gently disabused them of the idea that there was some agreed upon set of principles that all the world could accept for a moral compass.
“You have a decent metaphor,” he told them, “but it isn’t complete until you tell me the force that points it in the right direction. The right direction for you, for the world, and for God.”
Older Methodists have no trouble with that one. A serviceable way to give it the metaphorical equivalent of a magnetic field is our old friend, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral — that four-poster of scripture, tradition, experience and reason. I think every Methodist has his or her own favorite. Mine is reason. Most preachers like the scripture part. But it only works if you take it all together. And that makes all this free will business a little more challenging.
Well, then it was time to go home. Kids were looking at their cell phones and receiving texts from parents waiting in the parking lot.
“Dammit! This just getting good,” I was thinking. “I can hardly wait until we meet again and pick up the discussion where we left off tonight.”
Oh, friends, the gift to be a fly on the wall listening to our youngsters as they wrestle with the reality of climate change, human migration, world hunger, racism, mass shootings and more; the gift to hear their growing awareness and moral conviction. The gift to hear them talking about them and addressing the bitter legacy of our generation.
If you think these kids are no deeper than pop culture and video games, you are very wrong. When the earbuds come out, the Holy Spirit is whispering our faith tradition messages of wisdom, justice and mercy into their tender and accepting ears. And, for that, we should offer prayers of thanksgiving.