Listening to our Youth

1.2 million followers read Emma Gonzalez’s tweet about Betsy DeVos’ visit to her school; “Good thing I was already sleeping in tomorrow.”

269,000 followers read Sarah Chadwick’s tweet about the same visit; “Literally no one asked for this.”

The New York Times made this observation about these two tweets; “And with a few tweets the students had overtaken another adult official’s narrative.”

Parkland

My first thought upon reading this observation is “it’s about time.” I’ve spent most of my life in the church in some capacity, so I’ve been dealing with dynamic of adult/youth interaction from several different perspectives.

I was duly elected to our church’s board as a high school junior. I was eager to serve. I thought it was great that the church wanted a representative from the youth group to be on the board, to have a voice in the room. I came to the conclusion that they didn’t want my voice heard as much as they wanted to feel good about saying they had a youth representative on the board.

Much of my focus upon entering the ministry was ministry with youth. I was blessed to serve a congregation who took the voice of youth seriously. I was witness to youth going to border communities in Mexico to build homes with generous support from adults. People listened as the youth shared the truth that our neighbors to the south are children of God and not all that different from us.

That’s one story. There are others that aren’t quite as nice. I’ve led enough events which proudly lifted up 1 Timothy 4:12, “let no one look down upon you because of your youth” while then sending them back to church and civic communities who made a habit of discounting the voice of youth because they were young. Churches designate one Sunday a year where the youth could lead worship, because heaven forbid they participate in the other fifty-one Sundays. I once had a church leader tell me, “the only thing you don’t do well as a Senior Minister is that you listen to the youth too much.” Two things stood out- first, if that was the only thing she thought I didn’t do well, then she wasn’t paying close attention. Second, I took her well-meaning statement as one of the great compliments that I could receive. I was doing something right.

For too long, the church has not been faithful in listening to the voice of our youth. Youth have a way of showing us what God would have us do and moving us to action. The country is seeing that in the passion and the actions of the Stoneman Douglas students, who are inspiring us to gather and to have needed conversations around gun and school violence. In the space where adults have failed, our teens are moving us forward. Thanks be to God! It’s long past time for our youth to have voice in shaping our narrative and our life together.

Parkland: What I Would Say this Morning

A clergy friend called me the other day, wrestling with what to say to his congregation this morning about the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Our conversation got me thinking about what I would say to a congregation on this day. So, here is a close approximation to what I would share. 

We gather here after a week where 17 people lost their lives in yet another school shooting. Violence of this nature in our schools was once an unthinkable tragedy, yet now seems like an almost regular occurrence, to the point where we are numb, wondering when and where this will happen again. Our thoughts and prayers are important, but it’s time we realize that our prayers, no matter how deep and heartfelt, are not enough to bring back or save lives. On Thursday morning, I hugged my kids an extra time or two before putting them on the school bus. I imagine many of you did the same.

Parkland

 

We have now entered the familiar pattern of figuring out who and what to blame. We do this without any real conversation or any real acknowledgement that something in our collective lives needs to change. Life is too precious to God and should be too precious to us for us to continue doing the same things.

Every time I speak about guns, I offer this caveat. Guns have never been a part of my life. We did not have a gun in the house growing up. I’ve never been hunting or sport shooting and have no intention to do so. We don’t have a gun in our house. I’ve been to a shooting range twice and most likely will not go back. I personally don’t like guns and don’t understand our fascination with them. However, many people whom I care about deeply feel differently and I respect that. Guns are an important part of their lives and I seek to honor that.

I know that people not only in this congregation, but in most congregations, have widely different views on guns. Many of us own multiple guns and use them for sport and recreation on a regular basis. For some, a hunting blind on a crisp fall morning is a holy place. On the other hand, some would not think of owning a gun. Some feel very strongly about the 2nd Amendment while others would be fine with it being rewritten or repealed all together. I wonder if that is what makes conversation around gun violence so difficult to have. It invoke a strong emotional reaction in us one way or another.

No matter what point of view we carry, it’s time to begin having serious conversation and reflection around the role guns play in our lives and communities. Jesus is quite famous for saying “Blessed are the peacemakers.” The church and those seeking to follow the way of Jesus must be peacemakers. Jesus spent a large portion of his ministry tearing down systems of violence and oppression so that all may have life. We cannot be faithful to that call if we are not at least willing to have conversation and do some self-reflection. Our kids’ lives are too important for anything less.

I realize there are other factors that go into this type of violence other than the gun itself. By many accounts, the shooter had a difficult life that was further complicated by a spirit of fear, anger, and hatred towards others. Our nation, from the highest levels, is riddled with spirits of fear, anger, and division. These spirits permeate our communities and our institutions. These are sinful and the church cannot fall into being about these things. The church must be about love for all, hope, and unity. The church must be welcoming to all, no exceptions. We have to create the space necessary for difficult conversations. We, through the love of God, must be a place of healing of hope for people and for our community. We cannot underestimate our power in being a force for good. This is no time for us to shrink back. We have an important role to play in the healing of our community and nation.

So today, we do offer our deep prayers. Our prayers of lament and our prayers of hope. May those prayers convict us to be peacemakers. Lives are too important for anything else.