It didn’t exactly set out to be a time of worship. It was simply a social evening where I joined a friend, my friend’s daughter, her husband, and their two children for a cookout.
We sat at a large, round table, enjoying the lovely Southern California evening. The children–a daughter, 14, and a son, 11, and I had met before. For some reason, teenagers like me, possibly because I genuinely like them, and they readily entered into the relaxed conversational stream.
Soon, we learned that the daughter, recently enrolled in a rigorous Roman Catholic all-girls school, faced a difficult homework situation. She was assigned a passage of scripture, was told the theme of the passage, then had to analyze and explain it in five to ten sentences. When that was done, she had to write a five to ten sentence prayer with the main lessons from the scripture passage as the core of the prayer, all culminating with her leading her classmates in that prayer.
This conversation took place on Saturday evening; the assignment was due Monday morning. My friend immediately volunteered me to help.
The daughter brought out her large, heavy Bible, found the passage, and handed it to me. Her assigned passage was from the Gospel of Matthew. I read it with some dismay. She had been told that the theme of the passage was “stress.” Well, not in my opinion. I was shocked at the very nature of the task: to assign untaught young people to grab a passage, with no contextual explanation, and expect cogent analysis makes no sense to me. Particularly when the passage itself had little to do with “stress.”
Talk about stressed.
So I began conversing with her about the nature of the Kingdom of God and what it meant to live in that kingdom in a manner that shows it is to be experienced and practiced now, not as some future expectation of perfect bliss.
At this point, the younger son began to speak up, peppering the conversation with thoughtful questions about who would and who would not get into heaven.
I asked him this, “Do you think God is in the business of keeping people out of heaven or trying to get people into heaven?”
He stopped to think about this a while. I did not hurry him–I wanted him to sort out the answer for himself. Much of his teaching so far about the spiritual life apparently revolved around the idea that many would experience an eternity of hell. No question but that he was bothered by the idea–and concerned for himself and his own eternal destiny, as well as that of his family. I learned later that one of his grandparents had recently declared himself an atheist. This young man was worried.
The daughter began to wrap her mind about present kingdom of heaven living. We talked about the concept of gratefulness, of learning to thank God for the abundance of blessings and then the necessity of passing on those blessings to others. She grasped quickly how easy it is to think that we deserve to be well-treated, and to stop saying “Thank you” to God and to others. She saw how a lack of gratefulness leads to deeper selfishness, stopping the whole process of passing blessings on.
Later, after we moved inside to escape the growing menace of mosquitoes, the son, obviously a bit disconcerted because he was talking with a female who held clergy credentials, suddenly asked, “Why is religion so sexist?”
I looked him straight in the eye and said, “It is because men, at the core of their tender psyches, are terrified of women and need to limit female power and voice in order to feel comfortable with their own.”
He looked at me thoughtfully. Then he said, “I am not afraid of women. I will not be a sexist.”
A laugh-filled “high five” followed.
When I left, drained by the rapid-fire intensity of the questions, I became aware that we had been engaging in our own form of worship, perhaps like a first century rabbinic exchange. I served as the expert, and opened the doors to questions and space for honest doubt. No liturgy, order of worship , music or formal prayer. However, there was communion–the communion of souls opening themselves in honest vulnerability to God and to each other.
We were all aware of the Presence of the Holy One among us.
It’s not a conversation/experience any will quickly forget. Eyes were opened, a doorway cracked that showed the powerful invitation of the light of grace.
We just had our version of an early Christian time of worship and instruction, centered on food, enhanced by the trusting smallness of the group, and positioned in the center of God’s love and hope for humanity.
[Note: this article first ran in the September 5, 2014, edition of the Denton Record Chronicle.]