Overwhelmed: Heed the voice of youth

the series finale!overwhelmed4forworship

Here’s a question I wish someone would have asked Jesus in any of the gospels: “In the resurrection, what age will I be?”

Like: can I have the knees of Steve in his 20s but the insight of Steve in his 50s? And PLEASE, the metabolism of 19 year old Steve? Hair color: yeah, I don’t care; I’m ok with this washed-out gray-brown. (and if you don’t see any brown any more, just don’t tell me.”

There are a lot of people lately who feel compelled to keep before us that at the Wedding Banquet for the Lamb, imagined in Revelation and some of Jesus’ teachings, the tables will be filled with people who “don’t look like us.” Mike Ramsdell pointed out a week ago that the “geographic center” of United Methodism is in Rwanda.

We are reminded that however divided the kingdoms of this world are by race or class or culture, the Kingdom of God is beautifully, gloriously diverse!

But even that picture, the images most of us conjure, I’m afraid, are limited to diversity of hue of skin, hairstyles, and clothing variances.

I wonder how many of us imagine the wide age diversity?

What age do you want to be in the resurrection? Have you ever given it any thought? Does it matter to you?

We are tackling the Book of Job under the heading of “overwhelmed.” I think it is fair to say that Job was overwhelmed, and that, perhaps, we can learn something from his story that can help us deal with feeling overwhelmed.

One of Job’s problems, I suggested in week 2 of this series, was that he thought his world was the world. In his world, life had always worked in this way: you work hard, you get paid. You slack, you don’t. Of course, this wasn’t just work and pay; Job had read this way onto life itself: if you try your best, if you do good, you would be rewarded with good things and happiness.

Job HAD a good life; he had his best life now! He had lived well!  He is introduced, you remember, this way, Job “was honest, a person of absolute integrity; he feared God and avoided evil.” (1:1)

Then there’s this bet in heaven where the satan accuses God of protecting Job, playing favorites with Job. So God lets the Satan take away all his possessions. Job doesn’t flinch, the satan goes back to God, God allows him to inflict Job with sores, head to toe.

Then we get 28 chapters of back and forth between Job and 3 of his friends: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. After sitting silently with him for 7 days and nights. In Jewish tradition, and a tradition we would do well to adopt, they didn’t speak to Job, the one grieving, until he spoke to them. Then, in turn, they each tell Job he has done something to deserve this, to bring it on himself. And to each, Job insists he hasn’t.

Job and his friends have, to this point, existed in the same world; the world where right behavior is blessed and wrong behavior is cursed. It only remained to learn – or for Job to admit – what the wrong behavior was.

But these things hadn’t happened to Job because he had done anything wrong!

After several back-and-forths with his friends, the story starts to take a different turn. Job turns nostalgic in chapter 29:

Oh, that life was like it used to be,
  like days when God watched over me;
when his lamp shone on my head,
  I walked by his light in the dark;
when I was in my prime;
  when God’s counsel was in my tent;
when the Almighty was with me,
  my children around me;(2-5)

And chapter 30 takes a turn that I, honestly, didn’t see coming:

But now those younger than I mock me,
   whose fathers I refused to put beside my sheepdogs.

I don’t know where this is coming from – at least not in the text. No one younger than Job has mocked him. NO one younger than Job has been mentioned.

But, I suppose, that sense does sometimes come following nostalgia. For instance, some of you might have felt this way:

“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, and tyrannize their teachers.”

Do you know who said this? This gets really fun. It has many times been attributed to Socrates, but really only dates back to 1908. We’ve been despairing our youth for a long time – and attributing it even longer!

Or this: “Even as I said it, I knew the phrase, ‘to make a living’ could have absolutely no meaning to these children of the affluent society.”

Sounds about right today – except Ernest Fladell of Life Magazine said it in 1968. Of the baby boomers. For those following along at home, baby boomers are between 55 and 73 now.

We have a long history of thinking nostalgic and somehow then turning that around on younger people.

Here’s the deal: since this is nothing new, I don’t intend to come down hard on anyone for it. But, you know, there’s this thing that once you know about something, you’ve lost the excuse of, “Oh, I didn’t realize I was doing that.”

Here’s the deal this makes for today: the next turn in the Book of Job is the introduction of Elihu; Elihu is a 4th friend, one who we hadn’t met before chapter 32. You heard that introduction just before I started. I’ll recap the end of what was read, and take it a little further:

Elihu had waited while Job spoke, for they were older than he. When Elihu saw that there had been no response in the speeches of the three men, he became very angry.

Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite said:
I’m young and you’re old,
   so I held back, afraid to express my opinion to you.
I thought, Let days speak;
   let multiple years make wisdom known.
But the spirit in a person,
   the Almighty’s breath, gives understanding.
The advanced in days aren’t wise;
   the old don’t understand what’s right.
Therefore, I say: “Listen to me;
   I’ll state my view, even I.”
Look, I waited while you spoke,
   listened while you reasoned,
   while you searched for words.
I was attentive to you,
   but you offered no rebuke to Job,
   no answer from you for his words.

Folks: we’ve got a generational thing going on here! But it isn’t really about old versus young or young versus old. It is, I am convinced, another angle on my contention that “your world isn’t the world.”

How much of your experience of the world today is controlled or limited by your age, by your stage in life?

The temptation, at least as I experience it, is to think that we accumulate perspectives rather than replacing them. Let me try to unpack that.

This past Monday I was at South Euless Elementary. I mentor a 5th grade boy – which, in our case, means I meet with him at lunch. He sat down, and unpacked his bag. A honey bun, veggie chips, a salami sandwich, and a banana. And he proceeds to eat them in that order. I commented on his eating the honey bun first. (I wasn’t correcting him; I’ve sat with this guy at enough lunches to know that he’s going to eat everything.

I ask if he is going to eat things in that order. Had he considered, I wondered aloud, mixing, say, bites of sandwich in between crunching the chips?

No, way, he told me. Back to his honey bun.

I laughed inside. I remember when I ate that way! Divide and conquer. Then, years later, I was into the “mix it all up stage.” Now, I can go either way. Honestly, I usually eat all my veggies first. Not ‘cause I like ‘em, but ‘cause I know I need to eat them, and I want to get them out of the way before the good stuff.

My first tendency, though, was to correct this 5th grader; to invite him to the wily and daring world of intermixing the different parts of his meal.

Because I used to eat that way, and now I eat this way. So this way must be better, right?

Not. At. All.

I have replaced the perspective I had in 5th grade about eating the various parts of a meal. But I can still remember it, but it takes a bit of an effort not only to remember it but to value it. It is a different perspective than mine, but not a worse (or a better) one.

If we aren’t careful, we run the risk, as we grow older, of deluding ourselves into thinking we have collected perspectives and that this makes our current perspective the best one of all those we’ve been through.

Not. necessarily, true.

For instance: Job had YEARS of ‘proof’ that his perspective that good is rewarded (or blessed) and bad is punished (or cursed). But now, his kids all grown, he’s faced with a life that doesn’t actually work according to that perspective.

And Elihu, who now offers a different perspective, happens to be younger. Younger enough, it seems, not to be so set in his ways.

Which is a misnomer if ever there was one.

The ways you and I get “set in” as we age aren’t our ways; they are those, if we aren’t careful, of the generations that have gone before us. Like in Baby Boomers today lamenting about the laziness and fragility of millennials – sometimes using the EXACT SAME language their parents and grandparents used to lament about them!

I wonder how different it might look if we remembered how we felt hearing our parents – or other elders – pontificate about how things were “back in their day” before we started pontificating today?

Elihu offers a different perspective than Job’s other friends, and the only difference we are offered as a possible explanation is that he is younger.

I am pretty sure the Bible is trying to tell us something here.

A friend of mine served on the Board for United Methodist Communications as a youth. We haven’t done a stellar job of this, but did you know we, as a UMC, are required to have youth representation on every committee? Young people, I promise to improve this.

So, this friend’s name is Alice. At the time I was the Youth Coordinator for the Central Texas Conference, and that meant that sometimes I got the opportunity to take Alice to and from the airport she she could make the UMCOM board meetings.

One time, on the drive home from such a meeting, I asked her how the meeting was.

She was exasperated. They had spent a long time talking about how to reach and better communicate with 18-34 year olds. That’s an important demographic that the church – most churches – have had a lot of trouble connecting with.

Here’s the deal, though: Alice was 18 at the time, and they would never let her talk?

I mean, why get the perspective of an actual 18 year old?

As a church – a church with many more people my age (54) and older than younger – we have a lot of work to do to reach out to, to communicate with, younger people. And I have to admit, I’ve been at meetings – I’ve been part of discussions! – where us older folks talk about what will reach younger folks. Or where men talk about how to reach women, or where white people talk about how to reach other ethnicities.

There are many distinctions or boundaries between the vast diversity of humanity all around us, but they’re all porous. As God’s people, we are called to cross all the boundaries we can – age, gender, ethnicity, worldview, perspective.

Elihu reminds us of one of the echo chambers we fall into most easily, and I want to offer you one of the ways I think God has laid right in front of us that we can – and must – get out of our echo chambers. I almost said “comfort zone,” but I don’t know that we’re really all that comfortable.

If we were really comfortable where we are, with who we are as a congregation, we wouldn’t need a series called “overwhelmed.” Honestly: we are overwhelmed with many things, and in many ways.

Like Elihu speaking to Job, I am closing this series with one obvious step for us to take when we feel overwhelmed. Let us heed the voice of youth.

Here’s one way. Our Preschool. Our Preschool brings about 190 kids onto our campus each week. These kids come with parents. Some of those families have church homes, but some of them don’t.

What can we do to reach out to, to bless these families that trust their kids with the care offered by our church?

So; I don’t know which aged-version of you you expect to “be” in the resurrection, but I think we’ll find ourselves happy there if we heed the voice of youth today.

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