Yesterday I saw one of the primary principles of our mission in the School for Contemplative Living happen in real time. We say we want to “create contemplative communities who practice the presence of God for…radical engagement with the world.” Yesterday I saw radical engagement.
A high school senior was encouraged by his teacher to approach our United Methodist Church about sharing his senior research project for the church community. The topic: “The Effects of Bullying on LGBT Youth.” At first I thought, “Great, he can share his presentation with our Adult Spiritual Education group as an adjunct to our study of “Loving Your Muslim Neighbors.” He thought his sharing would take ten minutes and I thought that would be a great way to close out the class.
But then I reflected on our worship theme of embracing our human vulnerability and decided to ask him to speak in our worship service. Somehow it seemed right to let all of our people hear his discussion of this central expression of human vulnerability: being gay in cultures who still judge and bully gay people. Ten minutes of that sharing sounded just right.
When the speaker, his mom, and two high school friends arrived, I slipped out of the class and greeted them at the door. A warm welcome from an open heart came naturally. I think it is part of the ongoing conversion process from spending time practicing the presence of God each day to innately feel compassion for our brothers and sisters, especially those often rejected by cultures. This is not like trying hard to act in a loving way. This is far from burning ourselves out trying to save the world. Compassion just happens, or maybe we could say God happens. I really don’t think we can take the credit.
After we discussed the details of the service and the timing of when he would share, I moved to the front of the sanctuary and prepared to begin worship. His teacher arrived, greeted and congratulated him for the courage to share his research in public, and they all picked a pew. I had not thought to let our people know about his sharing ahead of time. It really just seemed like one more great contribution to worship, and several people co-creating worship is our norm.
When the time came for him to share as our morning reflection, he came to the microphone and first admitted he was nervous. Everyone laughed with him in that way that says, “It’s okay kid. We would be too.” Then he pulled out his cards to remind him of the major points of his research.
With a wonderful smile and exuding vulnerability he worked his way through his speech on the many ways gay youth can be alienated, ostracized, verbally bullied, and even sometimes physically attacked. Despite how open many youth and young adults are becoming, the research he shared points to some pretty stark trends that still continue across America.
When he finished his ten minutes of speaking people clapped, and then he decided to ask if anyone had questions or thoughts to share. Being a pastor who spends the week preparing a message of my own, I immediately thought, “Oh no, here we go.” I know our people. They love to share in worship. With 35-45 people there it often feels like a large Sunday School class anyway. And they had already gone quite a while sharing prayer requests.
My open-hearted hospitality began to clench a bit. Our most talkative member responded with several comments of affirmation. Others joined in. Even some of our first-time guests caught the spirit. You could just feel the room exuding compassion in response to his vulnerable sharing. I knew something amazing was happening right there among us. Grace was happening in our midst. Radical engagement was happening. But for the life of me I was struggling with the urge to get moving with the plan for the rest of the service. The talk had gone for 20 minutes.
I mean, my God, we still had Angie’s soprano solo of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” coming, and the offertory with Betty’s organ music, and Rev. Cory’s communion service, and a closing hymn, not to mention my ten minute sermon I had spent the week working on. It is really sad to admit this but it is true. By the end of the amazing, grace-filled, moments of radical engagement with a gay young man sharing from his heart and our people responding from theirs, I think the only person in the room who was no longer in the radical engagement was me.
Angie followed the sharing with her song. It was not perfect, so she just smiled and carried on: another example of embracing vulnerability. Rev. Nancy read the scriptures. Somehow she missed the marked sections and just kept reading both passages until the words ran out: another example. If I had really followed the Spirit’s nudge I would have skipped my sermon. I knew that was right in that moment.
But I had worked so hard on the writing and rewriting all week. I had imagined the two poems I would share affecting everyone. I just couldn’t let myself be vulnerable enough to admit we didn’t really have time for it or speak the truth that I was disappointed. So I plowed through the sermon anyway. And of course by then everyone was tired and probably ready to head for home. I don’t think my words helped me or them. And the most hilarious part of it all was how my prepared sermon was on embracing our vulnerability. Do you think I missed the point somewhere along the way?
So here’s a nod of gratitude for the moments when we are gifted enough to experience “radical engagement with the world,” often through embracing our vulnerability like that young man and our people did. And here’s a confession that I can miss out on the gift and sabotage my own mission when I forget to practice what I preach.
For more stories like this see Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture.