Texts: Psalm 31:1-5; John 14:1-14
In case you’re here this morning and wondering who on earth I am, Hi, I’m Bryan Lee, the new guy on staff. Some of you may have not even laid eyes on me yet. I stay tucked away, hanging out with teenagers because…well… I prefer them over most adults. We adults are boring and have let life and the responsibilities of “adulting” take over us. I fall in at the beginning of the millennial generation, who have taken that word adult and turned it into a verb. Adulting is never fun. So my question this morning is this: If we know that adulting is hard and meant for adults, why have we forced teenagers in this country to take on so much adulting?
Allow me to explain where I’m headed this morning. I want to tell you a little about my experiences in deconstruction, offer you one of my soapbox issues, and then bring them together to make my point for you this morning. So bear with me.
I grew up in rural eastern North Carolina and, as you may imagine, conservative religiosity dominated my childhood…my formative years. Luckily, in high school, instead of running away from the angry, wrathful God I had grown up with, I dove deeper to try to understand this God. Life took me to Campbell University to pursue a career in poverty, I mean youth ministry. It was at this moderate Baptist university that I began to see a God quite different than I had known my whole life. I like to think of it in terms of playing with Legos.
You see, I had constructed this thing my whole life; This religious thing, out of the various pieces that had been handed to me. How many of you this morning are already thinking, I feel ya brother. So what I tried to do at Campbell University was to explain this thing I had constructed with different language and do some theological acrobatics to make this thing still work. For the next 8 years, I did this as a youth minister, skirting the complex and difficult to make this thing work. And the more I taught this thing, the more it made me sick to my stomach. So I stopped teaching things I didn’t like and eventually I started running out of things I was comfortable teaching.
Then, finally, it happened. Something broke me. I watched my 6 week old niece die in the arms of my sister-in-law. Now that sounds horrific enough as it is but to make matters worse, my brother was the guy who had run from the God we grew up with and was just starting to come around again. So here I am, the “conservative” minister, left in total disarray. And for the next year, this lego masterpiece was torn down and I sat in the floor with all the pieces lying around me and began to throw things out. This doesn’t work. This is ridiculous. This is unchristian. And I began to rebuild this thing, and while it may not yet be complete, it is much more beautiful than I could ever have imagined. Now, I will assume you all know my story from there. Violently rejected from conservative religion and now I’m here.
But let me switch gears now and offer you my soapbox. Carl Jung, famed Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology said that “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents.” Rob Bell, famous for suggesting that hell may not exist and being kicked out of almost every religious context, speaks of children and parenting in an audio resource titled “Launching Rockets”. He says “children are not buckets for us to pour in our own anxiety and fears”. We should simply live our lives and encourage our children to be themselves. Let go of the anxiety of what they might become, and let them be.
You see, these statements apply to an array of issues in parenting, leading, and being a community of faith. At its basic level, we tell parents who weren’t prom king and queen to stop pushing their middle and high school children to be the popular one that everyone loves. Or we tell the sports fanatic parent to stop forcing onto their children their unlived days in the NFL, NHL, MLB, NBA, MLS, etc etc. But these roots run much deeper. Into the fabric of our society and our individual tribes. You see, it was the anxiety and fear of my former tribe that tried to maintain religious homeostasis. So we indoctrinate. We control what is seen and heard and who teaches and leads. Because anything outside of our box, is dangerous. Maintain the narrative and as soon as a counter-narrative begins to emerge, silence it. So, it’s no wonder they elected Trump.
Over the years, my philosophy of doing ministry has evolved as I have learned, so let me bring these two narratives together for you. The foundation of ministry is to love these teenagers unconditionally. That begins with allowing them to be fully themselves. As a church, a community of faith, raising teenagers together, we should be concerned with these things that they are building with but….it’s only because one day they will grow into more consciously aware adults. We know that one day they will be faced with their own lego masterpiece. They’ll decide there are some things that no longer work for them. It’s our job to give them fewer blocks that will, one day, get thrown out. Because someone like me and many of you who I have heard your stories, know that the more blocks that you have to throw out, the more it hurts.
A message from one of our youth, Caleigh Bradshaw-Norris:
I have called Pullen my home for 15 years now. I was dedicated as a baby and walked down isles for everyone to see. I was always so excited to go to my Sunday school classes and later children’s worship. I remember always asking to be an acolyte for every Sunday worship. Then I entered 6th grade and the youth group.
I’ve always been one to call others out for their actions and encourage them to take responsibility for their actions. I’ve been raised to show every human being compassion and kindness. My parents have always told me honesty is the best policy. I hold a great amount of empathy for other human beings. These traits that I have form my greatest desire. I’ve always wanted to help people. If I had to recall the one goal in my life that has never changed it’d be that; I just want to help people. As I got older, I realized that not everyone shared this same value as me. I remember some of my classmates bullying other students for looking different and things as simple as not sharing a toy because a kid acted differently from what society had told us kids should act like. I never could quite fathom why other kids would do this to one another. Didn’t they know that the weird kid had a mental disability? Didn’t they realize that they looked different because they had a skin condition? Even as a young child I still realized the social injustices that took place were wrong but I didn’t understand why. I believe Pullen is the reason for that.
This community of faith has inspired me to do many things and the most important one is to stand up for what is right. Pullen is where I learned how to help others. I’ve seen it in the way people are willing to help others cross the street. I’ve seen it in how there is always someone to hold the door. I’ve seen it in the smiles on complete stranger’s faces and in the “good morning!” exchanged between people in the hallways. I’ve seen it in the way we accept everyone for who they are no matter their religion, no matter their skin color, no matter their appearance, no matter their sexuality! Pullen has inspired me to take apart in the fight against injustice. I see so much of it in this world and in our society and sometimes I feel so lost and hopeless and like I can’t do it. How can I change the world when I am just one person? My English teacher told me a week ago that no one individual can change the world, but if that one individual can speak up and change the minds of other individuals and those individuals change the minds of others, society can change. And friends I am telling you that is what we at Pullen can do and that is what I have seen us do. Every time I feel that hopelessness, all I do is think of the work of the people at Pullen. I then no longer feel empty and desolate inside but I feel that spark of ambition to change other individual’s minds. I feel that inspiration taking hold. That is why I love this community. This community inspires me to make a difference and to help as many people as possible and to fight for what is right.
I came into the Youth group as an awkward 11 year old who just wanted to help but didn’t know how. Now I am a 17 year old who has a pretty good idea about it and I have Pullen to thank for it.