A preacher was once preaching a Hell-fire and damnation kind of sermon on the evils of alcohol. After the service one of his members, a 78 year old matriarch of the church, made her way to him and said, “Preacher, you’ve gone from preaching to meddling.”
I risk “meddling” in this message today, but we have discussed it amongst ourselves and we all feel that it is important to shine some light on an ever-increasing issue.
Our young people are under ever more mounting pressure to perform—to succeed—to win. Not one week into the new school year and you could hear it coming from some of our own youth. The expectations are fairly enormous—especially in the neighborhoods in which many of us live. I listened to one teenager recently (in a different church) talk about the whole “Advanced Placement”/College Prep classes. She said at her school, there is mostly no middle ground. “Average” doesn’t exist. You either excel or you are lumped together with “the losers” (her words). She said there were frequently comments from faculty that reinforced this notion.
The result for many of these young people in our classrooms is depression. “How can I keep up? When will I ever be deemed worthy? How many “A’s” does it take? What if I don’t get accepted to the college of my choice? What if I’m a loser, too?” It shouldn’t take a lot of imagination to see where such thinking might lead.
It would be easy enough to pile on here with how we treat our young athletes. If you aren’t “travel team” then you might as well stay at home. You hear more and more about “bullying” in schools. What if the worst offenders aren’t other students, but rather amateur coaches who have too much ego for their own good and a need to live vicariously through these young athletes? “You say you want to attend your church’s youth retreat? Go ahead, but you’ll lose your starting spot in the lineup . . .” Call that anything you want, but it sounds suspiciously like bullying to me.
Now let’s be clear—there is nothing at all wrong with wishing to excel. I wish every Christian Believer had a healthy dose of that desire within. We should all strive to be all that God made us to be. I’ve tried to play tennis for most of my life. I am a decent player and I play most every week with someone who is better than I am—I’ve been trying to beat him for 20 years and can count on one hand the number of times it has happened. But I keep after it because I will become a better player by playing—and even losing—to him. I’ll admit it—I’m pretty competitive.
But there is a difference—my sense of value, my self-worth, is not defined by my performance. My wanting to be a better player is internally driven. But my sense of self is a gift from God. I don’t have to prove my worth to anybody. My value as a human being is a given because I am a child of God and profoundly loved.
I suggest that is the story too many of our young ones aren’t hearing.
For those of you who are currently parents of these young ones, this is not a criticism aimed at you. I dare say it might be that the church has let you down. So how can we help you? We share your desire to help your young ones be the best they can be. But there seems to be no end of the number of people in their lives who want that for them. Maybe the church needs to be that place that can celebrate their victories—in the classroom or on the field—but also the place they can come when they fail. The place where they can be reminded that they are loved and that they are not losers. God doesn’t create losers.
A reminder to us all: it isn’t easy being a child or a teenager. They need all the love and support we can muster.
Peter and Gwen Cassidy recently attended their brother’s home church in Canada. They kept a worship bulletin for me to see. I was struck that their service opened with a quote from Thomas Merton. Merton was a hero of mine—and a lot of other folks, too. He was a Trappist Monk who spent much of his life at the monastery at Gethsemane, Kentucky.
Gethsemane is only about a two hour drive from Nashville. Some friends and I had been studying Merton’s latest work, “7 Story Mountain”—a wonderful spiritual journey. I had already been reading a book that featured an odd collection of his thoughts called “Conjectures Of A Guilty Bystander.” I go back to that book often. So my friends and I decided to go spend a week there as a retreat. It turned out to be one of the most unique experiences of my life.
The monastery at Gethsemane is “Trappist.” The Trappists are a very traditional, strict monastic community. For instance, we observed the 7 “offices” of the day for worship. The first began at 3:00 a.m. and then at 6 and 9 a.m. and at 12, 3, 6, and 9 p.m. We did this every day.
There was no talking at the monastery among the monks. Those of us who were visiting as retreat guests were allowed to talk with each other outside. Even meal times were times of reflection and quiet with an occasional recorded lecture piped into the eating area.
If you’ve never spent the bulk of an entire week not talking, you should try it. It isn’t easy. It is especially difficult if you are a minister and you make your living talking. It is an extreme form of discipline designed to help a person “get out of his own way” and focus only on God.
We managed to make it through the week. We spent much time in prayer, in study, and writing/journaling.
That quote in the Cassidy’s bulletin from Thomas Merton is worth repeating:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.”
“He’s Jesus Christ.” That was the title of a recent article by Nicholas Kristof and it captured my attention. In the Nuba Mountains of Sudan resides Dr. Tom Catena. He is a Catholic missionary from Amsterdam, New York and happens to be the only doctor at the 435-bed Mother of Mercy Hospital nestled in those mountains. For that matter, he is the only doctor in the entire region of some half a million people.
If you or someone you know subscribes to the caricature of devout religious believers as nothing more than sanctimonious hypocrites—the kind that rake in the cash and care about human life only when it is unborn, you might want to take a look at Tom Catena.
Nearly every day, the Sudanese government drops bombs on civilians in the Nuba Mountains. It is part of a “scorched earth” strategy intended to quell a rebellion. The U.S. government has largely turned away so as not to see this tragedy. So it is up to Dr. Tom to pry the shrapnel from bodies and to amputate the limbs of children—even as he delivers babies and performs other routine medical procedures.
He does this off the electrical grid—no running water, no telephone, no X-Ray machine—all while under the constant threat of bombing. To date, 11 bombs have hit the hospital or surrounding grounds. Foxholes have now been dug all around the hospital in order to give patients and staff a “more safe place” than inside the hospital. Dr. Tom says, “We are in a place where the government is not trying to help us. It’s trying to kill us.”
As the rest of the world has largely ignored Sudan and the carnage unfolding in the Nuba Mountains, Dr. Tom works quietly on—for the past 8 years. Kristof adds that Dr. Tom works in the hospital and is on call 24/7—the only exception being when he is unconscious from Malaria once a year or so.
For all of this, Dr. Tom earns $350 a month with no retirement plan or health insurance of his own. He is driven by his faith. Kristof says, “There are many, many secular aid workers doing heroic things. But the people I’ve encountered over the years in the most impossible of places—like Nuba where anyone reasonable has fled—are disproportionately unreasonable because of their faith."
One Muslim chief offered a simple tribute: “He’s Jesus Christ.”
The chief explained that Jesus healed the sick, made the blind to see and helped the lame to walk. “That’s what Dr. Tom does every day,” he said.
A team of short-term missionaries spent a week on a very rural island in the Bahamas called “Eleuthera”. There were 5 of us (Carol McDonough, Andy Lee, Buddy Lea, Kevin Stackhouse, and me). We each raised the funds we needed to spend a week there and you, the members of Forest Hills, helped us to do that. We owe you a debt of gratitude.
It seemed like a good thing to report back to you what we did there and why it matters.
Let’s start with a tiny bit of history. We know there were Arawak Indians on Eleuthera in the 1500s—the same Arawaks that died out due to the Spanish explorers in the area. The modern history really begins in 1648 when a group of people fled Bermuda in search of religious freedom from the oppressive practices of the Puritans—these folks were known as the “Eleuthera Adventurers.” Their boat shipwrecked on the southern end of the island where they found an amazing cave to begin their settlement. We visited that cave—it is known as “Preacher’s Cave” and the notion that their boat ran aground at the precise spot where this cave was gave us a sense that God was in it.
The island is 110 miles long but hardly half a mile wide. There is one point—the narrowest point on the island—where a bridge separates the Caribbean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean. It is the shortest distance between two major bodies of water anywhere in the world.
Eleuthera is a very rural, poor island. There is nearly no industry of any kind there. Where once there was a thriving hospitality industry, Hurricane Andrew ruined in 1992. Everything in the Bahamas is very expensive. The government puts a “Value Added Tax” (VAT) on all imports. The VAT on a new car from the United States, for instance, is 80%. Imagine paying $36,000 for a car that has a $20,000 sticker price. We stopped at Eleuthera’s largest store one day. I happened to notice a one pound bag of Pistachio Nuts—they were $35.00. With such prices, it’s no wonder the people live very simply.
Bahamas Methodist Habitat (BMH) was born as a result of Hurricane Andrew. The founder, Rev. Godfrey Bethel, retired while we were there and we all attended his ceremony. BMH has become a major force in the islands for disaster relief. The first phone call from the National Emergency Management Agency in a time of natural disaster is to BMH. In addition to their work in the Bahamas, BMH was also a critical staging area for materials and volunteers to Haiti during the tragic Earthquake there.
BMH works among four or five of the populated Bahamian Islands—there are over 700 islands in the Bahamas altogether. Most of the work there is in rehabilitation of storm-damaged homes. The hardest thing to get your head around as you go there to work is that what you do there will not last, in the physical sense. Our team repaired the roof of the home of a Mrs. Johnson. We did a great job on it and that roof is in better shape than when it was first built. At the same time, that roof may not survive the next storm season. That is life in the Bahamas.
The true value of the work there is in building relationships. The people there know that the Methodist Church and BMH care about them. Since the weather is capable of tearing down whatever we might try to fix, the sense of caring has to be enough—and it IS enough.
We not only were able to make relationships with the people there, but also with other work groups. That was the most fun of the trip.
Doing this kind of short-term mission work is not for everybody. It requires the time and expense needed to go. It also requires a sense of adventure to go to a strange area and live as they live and eat as they eat, etc. I think I can speak for all of us when I say there is a unique kind of “knowing” that you can only get by being there. No picture, no movie, no lecture, no book can substitute for the actual experience.
We are grateful to you for helping support our mission to Eleuthera. We are already thinking about our next international mission—probably two years from now. Maybe you are ready??
Kristin Clark-Banks is the pastor of Forest Hills UMC.