When I share my faith story I sometimes give it a title:
I Was a Teenage Baptist!
Besides trying to evoke a few chuckles by conjuring the image of a young Michael Landon as a Bible carrying werewolf, it refers to being a part of a group of young people in the first half of the 1970s who had a deep impact on my life.
A few weeks ago, this group had a reunion. Imagine that. A youth group reunion. What drew us together again taught me a lot about Christian community and how we friends and apprentices of Jesus are a living Gospel story.
It all started when my family moved to a new town in the middle of the school year. I arrived in a new Junior High in December, 1971 and for a few long months had a hard time getting used to the place. Then one day before school, two people from my home room invited me to come with them and to “see something.” What? I asked. You’ll see, they said. These kids were friendly to me and went some distance to make me feel at home, but I can’t say I really knew them yet. What they invited me to was a before-school prayer meeting in a far corner of the empty cafeteria.
I was invited to Bible study in the home of some older high school kids (some of whom included The Coolest Guys in their classes) and where we sang songs, studied the Bible and prayed. We’d go on hikes, picnics and to the beach, go bowling and hang-out. Our group ran two—yes, two—Christian coffee houses, the first in a tough neighborhood in the city and another in our own town.
It was not all church all the time. We also took part in all the normal high school rituals of sports, social life and clubs—and in this context we worked out all the same questions of identify, belonging, sexuality, relationships, and sense of self that all adolescents must negotiate. Here I must stop and tip my hat to my parents, God rest their souls, who endured having a teen-aged son who chose to work out his adolescent rebellion by becoming a Jesus Freak.
Early on, a new, young pastor and his wife came to a tiny Baptist Church in town and adopted this little group, which eventually grew to over three dozen—sometimes more-- kids crammed into their living room every Tuesday night.
This group was and remains the foundation of my Christian story. To the extent that my preaching, pastoral care and way of thinking about Christianity affects how I go about my ministry today, this group of high school aged Christians has had an effect on everyone I've ministered with since.
So it was with some anticipation and, yes, even a little dread, that I returned to Connecticut and took part in a reunion of this group of people who so much a part of my life in high school—and my walk with Christ. I wondered how a big-tent, progressive Episcopalian would fit in. I wondered if the group would feel safe to those who have left the fold. I wondered if our diversity of experience would trump our common origin, or if God’s Spirit would draw us together again in a new version of an old community. Of course, not all of us were there, but those who were able to make it represented a healthy cross-section of the original group spanning several years.
The Good News: God’s Spirit swept away all anxiety. What was old was made new. Imagine that!
What was amazing was how many different directions we had taken. Some of us have gone through some very stormy times. I heard many story of many challenges in many lives: childbirth outside of marriage, divorces, the death of a spouse, changes in careers...a few of us have been kind of beat up by life. A few people brought their kids, who looked on this whole exercise with patient bemusement and open curiosity. Some came with their spouses and partners and everyone brought their stories. In short, we represented all the things one expect of a cross-section of people your basic American suburban high school after 35-plus years apart except for that one unique connection that usually does not show up at a typical reunion. Our time shared in Christian community.
In terms of everyone’s spiritual life there has been just as much variety of experience. Some folks are still part of that same Baptist Church—heck, that young pastor is still there forty years after he arrived fresh out of seminary!—others have joined churches very similar to it but in other places. Some of us have slightly tweaked their stance in a variety of Christian traditions. One person shared with me their connection to a breakaway Anglican church, whose preaching reminds her of home but whose liturgy is a rich, new experience. Some don’t go to church at all, but came back anyway and later talked of how refreshed and renewed they felt just the same.
Two weeks later I am still thinking about our reunion and what it meant to re-connect with these folks after so many years apart. One thing I’ve asked myself is, besides mere nostalgia, was there anything that can be learned from this group that can still inform the Christian walk of a 50-something Episcopal priest and his congregation, friends and family?
I know I am not alone in the kind of experience I had. Once, not long ago, I was visiting a parishioner in the hospital. As I was talking to her daughter, I mentioned that I was going from the hospital to meet with the youth group at the bowling alley. This brought a flood of stories of her own time in our youth group when she was young. She recalled the people, the fun…and the encounters with God in the middle of all that.
In my parish, we recently completed a building project that has expanded our parish house and made the church fully accessible. As we have re-opened the hall and started using the new addition, one thing I’ve also noticed is the way in which our own stories have played out in new ways. One long-time member of the parish just glowed when she said, not about the building but about the community, “I just love this church!” Another one of us was able, because of the new ramp, to enter the hall for the first time in decades. She told us the story of when she was last here, and from there it became a story of how her love for Jesus has grown through many, often difficult years. These moments are blessings that remind us that God is at work now.
Our faith-stories aren’t just dusty old scrapbooks of spiritual nostalgia but the keys to knowing how God is at work in and around us today. The real challenge is, having strolled down this spiritual memory lane, what do we do with it. How might this feed us now?
Getting in touch with our own Gospel-story reminds what it was that made us Christian in the first place. Touching again the time when our faith was new can recall for us how much God has done for us, and while we might smile at our youthful idealism, we will also discover how God’s Spirit transformed at key moments in our living.
Recalling our Gospel-story helps us interpret where we’ve been and gives us hints as to where we are going—both what we want to continue and what we seek to change. Instead of just being a phase or a distant past, we can begin to see the times when we have walked near to God and far from God both in terms of our own choices and responses to circumstances, but also see in new, perhaps unimagined ways, how God has walked with us in all we’ve done.
Perhaps the most important way we can make use of our story is to say it out loud. Hearing ourselves tell the story of our walk with Christ, hearing the words we use, the images we have, and even hearing the gaps in the story will do two things: it will feed and encourage others who are On The Way, and it will help us learn, reflect and deepen our faith. We may find that what we thought was a dormant or routine spiritual life is in fact The Holy Spirit going before us, doing remarkable things, preparing the way for something new.
Afterwards, one of the people at the reunion commented on Facebook that our gathering was like “a little piece of heaven.” She’s right. I see our time together as an illustration of what it means to be in communion. I suspect that if we filled out questionnaires or answered a survey, we’d find that our theological positions on many things have changed over the years. Some have locked down, some have become more flexible, but we have all adapted that first encounter with Jesus and Christian community to wherever we find ourselves today. Some of us are still quite active in churches (even the same church) and others have left religion altogether. We’d look around the group and say on the one hand “You haven’t changed a bit” and on the other “My! How you’ve grown!”
Still we gathered, we sang, we prayed. This is communion: that despite our variety of changes, perspectives and beliefs, we gather around the same Christ—who promised both to be with us always and to be present even in the smallest gathering—we listen and we dare to pray.
Updated March 15, 2017 to correct the dates. It was on March 15, 1972 that I was invited to that prayer meeting.