Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sticky Faith

Sticky Faith
Sermon 04/14/13
"Sticky Faith" Sermon Series

Today we begin a conversation about "Sticky Faith."  What does it mean to be Sticky?  What does it mean to share our faith?  What does it mean to, especially, share it with younger generations?  Do you have to be a child's parent to impart messages of belief?  Do you have to be their grandparents, aunt, or uncle?  Is the job only left to Sunday School teachers and Pastors to raise our kids in faith?  Is it always "somebody else's" job?  Or do we truly believe in the "it takes a village" sentiment?

Here's where I would like us to start...  Close your eyes.  Picture an adult from your life, a moment from your life, that made a difference in your faith.  Maybe it was a family member.  A church member.  A teacher.  A friend.  A neighbor.  Picture that person.  What did they do or say that encouraged you?  Supported you?  Made you wonder?  Made you feel loved, valued, accepted?  Made you feel like you weren't alone?...

If you've got somebody in mind, I want you to write their name on the post-it note in your bulletin.  Take it home - pray for them, if they're still alive, write them a thank you note.  And put the post-it somewhere where you will see it every day over the next month, as we talk about why Sticky Faith is important.  That person made a difference in your life...  How can you pass it on?

As I was thinking about why this idea of Sticky Faith is important to me...  I realized it's because I had so many people throughout my life come alongside and guide me in the moments I needed it most.  And every one of them played a part in who I am today.  If it had just been left up to my parents - I would have gone to church, but maybe would have stopped going after high school, like so many (up to 70%) of kids do.  If it was just up to my Sunday School teachers, I would have quit church in 7th grade. (There's a story there - but we don't have time to get into it.  Let's just say, my Sunday school teacher is in prison...  Crazy!)

We moved a lot as I was growing up - we started attending church full time when I was 5.  It was a huge, old, stone church in a small town in Ohio.  It was dark inside...  and the sanctuary had a cavernous feel.  It intimidated a painfully shy little girl.  But upstairs, and around the corner, there was a classroom with two little old ladies who knew my name the first day, who were always happy to see us, who sang and laughed with us every week.  (Most of the funny childhood church songs I still know, I learned from them!)  I don't remember their names, but I can picture them in my head - with their perfect white wispy curls and colorful church dresses.  They made me feel accepted and welcomed, just because I was there.

In fifth grade, I got to move into the "cool" class.  Ms. Nancy was my teacher.  She was cool and hip, and made us all laugh - even while teaching us lessons about the Bible.  She liked to make our class memorize things - which I have always been horrible at!  We had to memorize the 12 disciples names and the 23rd Psalm, among other things.  It always took me weeks longer than the rest of the class to complete the assignment...  Everyone would get stars on a chart when they did it - and my spot was left open for a while...  But the thing about Ms. Nancy?  When I finally did get it - it wasn't "well, it's about time!"  No...  She made it sound like I got the winning homerun of the game!  As soon as I could recite the verse - she'd throw a party.  It wasn't about me - it was about the whole class - but she never made me feel like I was holding things up.  She made me feel loved, valued, and accepted no matter what.  And in getting the rest of the class to cheer me on - she made sure I never felt like I was all alone.  When we moved away from Ohio, she gave me a card with a handwritten note about how much she enjoyed knowing me - to a painfully shy kid?  That meant the world!  I still have it...

My 5th grade teacher, Ms. Leffel, also went to my church.  It was a weird mix of worlds as a 5th grader...  I found myself watching her more carefully at school - and noticing that she was a little different from some of my other teachers.  She was warm, happy, welcoming, excited to see us - and she laughed, a lot.  Which I loved about her.  She didn't necessarily talk about her faith at school - but knowing she had faith made all the difference in how I viewed her.  She was kind - always.  She made every kid in class feel loved, valued, and accepted - no matter what.  And she always had this way about her that made it seem like we were all on the same team.  Never alone.

We moved to California when I was in 6th grade - and I found a new teacher that had a profound effect on my life.  Mrs. Langer was a quiet older lady...  Short and a little messy.  I was starting a new school and once again, painfully shy.  But she was interested in art and music.  She would spend big blocks of time in class introducing us to artists like Georgia O'Keefe and MC Esher - both of which drew my attention.  She'd play classical music while we read or wrote.  She made us write our own books - complete with illustrations.  She noticed my creative talents - and encouraged them, giving me a voice and an identity.  She saw into me and noticed gifts and talents I didn't even know existed at the time.  She loved, valued, and accepted me.  And in her guiding, I knew I was never alone.

Next, we moved to Minnesota in the middle of my 7th grade year.  (We only lived in California for a year and a half - my family refers to that time as the "extended family vacation.")  This was a hard move.  Junior High kids can be mean.  I was coming from a different way of life and was suddenly being judged for my clothes, what folders I had, where I lived, what my hair looked like...  It was rough.  And I wanted nothing more than to go back to California.  But we started going to Eden Prairie United Methodist Church - and I found a place that I could be myself in.  I had a Sunday School teacher that I still run into occasionally.  He talked about real life, actually read from the Bible and challenged us with questions about what the scriptures meant, he shared his thoughts from his weekly Bible Study - and was always thrilled to see us!  He knew I craved a little deeper discussions, and wanted to learn about prayer and devotions - and he always took the time for me.  He was patient.  Kind.  And willing to share his faith journey with a bunch of teenagers - no matter what their response might be.  Drake, and his wife, Terry, were special people to me at a time when I could have easily decided I didn't need to go to church anymore - they knew me.  Noticed me.  And noticed if I wasn't there...  And that meant something!

This weekend, our Children's Ministry Chair, Leslie Watkins, and I attended SPLASH - a children's ministry conference - and I had another reminder of an adult who made an impact on my faith life.  The summer between my junior and senior year of college, my home church in Eden Prairie was going through a Youth Ministry crisis - the Youth Director had quit and they needed someone to keep the momentum going through the summer.  I applied and they hired me as an interim youth director.  I had a blast that summer - but really didn't know what I was doing!  The Children's Ministry chair, Deb, took me under her wing and showed me the ropes.  Deb had known me since I was in 7th grade - and was excited to work with me and teach me knew things.  I learned all kinds of things from her - as well as a bit about her own faith journey.  She was my "partner in crime."  I hadn't seen her in many years, and yesterday as I scooted into a workshop a little late - one seat was open in the class, and halfway through the presentation I really looked at the person next to me...  And guess who it was?!  Deb!  We had a great laugh - and shared ministry stories.  So fun to be reunited with someone who played a role in where I am today - and gave my faith a nudge at just the right time in my life as a young adult...

I could go on and on with examples of adults who played an important role in my faith life.  There were neighbors who invited me to their Vacation Bible Schools, the people who sat next to us in the pew every week and always wanted to know what I was up to - and noticed if we missed a Sunday, older church members who treated us like we were their own grandkids...

What was it about these people that made them so important to me?  What was it about the person you remembered a few moments ago that made them so important to you?  Did they have seminary degrees?  Did they know all the right answers?  Were they hip and cool?  Were they related to you?  Most of the people I mentioned didn't have any of these things.  That wasn't what mattered.  What mattered was that they saw me.  They knew my name.  They accepted me as I was.  They valued what I had to offer.  They loved me - for just who I was at that moment.  And I never felt alone when they were around - they never would have let that happen.  They made sure I knew that they were there for me.

That's what sticky faith is all about.  It's about sharing our lives and our faith with those around us.  We talk a lot about sharing the good news with co-workers, neighbors, friends...  But we forget that our youngest church members need to hear and see about God's work in the world - and in our lives - too.  We take for granted that if they're in our building somebody's teaching them...  so we think we don't have to worry about it.

We may be a "multi" generational church - but it takes work, and love to be an "inter" generational church.  Remember family gatherings?  Sitting at the "kids table?"  I hated that as a kid.  I wanted to hear the stories the adults told.  I was curious about their lives and what was important to them.  I studied them to learn how to behave at the table...  But though I craved to be part of that world - I still got stuck at the kiddie table...  Isn't that what we do to our kids at church?  They can come in and look cute for a few minutes - but then they are sent down the hall to rooms that many of you have probably never even visited...  Do you know the names of 5 of our kids?  Do you know what they are interested in?  What makes them laugh?  Do they know your name?  Would they feel like they could ask you for help if they needed it?  Something to think about...  What if everyone in our church was valued?  And what if - we all decided to share our lives and faith together? 

Because here's the deal - the idea of Sticky Faith is totally Biblical.  Jesus said, "let the little children come to me."  Jesus said we have to become "like children" to enter the kingdom of God.  (And who's going to teach us - and remind us of what that means, if not our kids?)  God loves children - and asks us to share that love with them - with each other.  This idea of Sticky Faith is bigger than Youth Directors everywhere wanting more help with our youth.  It's bigger than me and my dreams for what our church could be.  This is God's vision for us.  So don't just trust me - trust God.  Because God can and will give us all the wisdom, guidance, courage, and ability to reach out to others in love - even our kids!

At some point, each and every one of our kids will get to an age where they get to start deciding if they come to church...  And with today's busy schedules and array of things competing for their time - the only way a youth or young adult will make their church community a priority, is if they feel like they matter there.  They need a community that values them - and not just says they value them, but lives it out in words and actions.  They need a place that has purpose for them.  Why do they need to be here?  What do they have to offer?  I think all too often, we give youth especially, the idea that they're not quite good enough.  The littlest kids are cute and entertaining to have around.  But once you hit 7th grade - we don't understand you.  We're a little intimidated by not knowing your language, your technologies, your interests...  And so, instead of asking and taking the time to get to know them - we keep our distance.  Which tells them they aren't important and we assume their parents and youth director are all they need.  But it's so not true....

Sticky faith is about helping our youngest members to develop an internal faith and an external faith - a faith that is their own, and that is lived out in decisions and actions.  Something we definitely learn by witnessing how others live, learning by example from trusted friends.  Sticky faith is personal faith - but also communal.  It's about being part of a community - and we learn about being part of a community when we are invited in, cared for, and given a purpose within that community.  Sticky faith is about spiritual growth - the process of always learning and growing.  We don't continue growing on our own - we need one another.

And we certainly don't have to be perfect to come alongside a youth or child - and just be their friend.  I love the quote, "people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people never forget how you made them feel."  All those people I mentioned from my childhood?  Half of them I don't remember their names, or specifics about their lives....  But I know how I felt when I was with them - and that's what made all the difference.  Everyone of us can be that for our kids. 

The Sticky Faith book and resources comes out of research done at Fuller Youth Institute - research into young people's faith as they exit high school and enter college - and beyond - and the practices that can lead to lifelong faith and service.  I'll be honest, the statistics in the first chapter are daunting.  And it feels a little hopeless at first...  But I love what the authors wrote about why they wrote the book:  "a major reason we wrote this book was our deep desire for kids to journey through life with the God who loves them more than they can even imagine.  You - who are reading the book and part of the conversation - are more than a launching pad for that journey; you are also an ongoing companion, guide, and fellow journeyer."

If you have a single kid in your life...  Read this book.  It tends to talk about things from a parent's perspective - but any of us can use these ideas with the kids we know.  And it's practical.  There's no silver bullet to giving a kid a life of faith - but there are ideas in how to be that guide along the journey.  And does it mean my life has to be perfect?  That I have to have all the answers and never have made mistakes?  Absolutely not!  It means I have to be willing to listen, to share, to hear what they are saying, to question things with them...  To know their names.  To accept them for who they are.  To value what they have to offer. 

You see our littlest kids every Sunday during the children's chat - and occasionally when they sing for our worship service.  They're cute, full of giggles and smiles.  They come with silly answers and sometimes big questions.  Sometimes, they like to tell Pastor Penny that she gives them the same blessing every week!  We see bits of their individual personalities shining forth - and it's easy to say hi to them, because they're cute and little and bounce on by!

But what about our youth?  We have some great youth in our church!  They tend to sneak around under the radar...  I'm guessing they talk to very few adults on a Sunday morning.  But for goodness sakes - say hi to them!  They are funny, smart, full of interesting thoughts and ideas.  They're creative and willing to try all kinds of new things.  They're willing to be silly one minute and work hard to serve others the next.  They're in every sport under the sun.  And they can surprise you in all kinds of ways.  The girls in youth group asked for a book study about spirituality...  Whoa!  We started last week and had a blast together!  (The boys prefer paintball for Jesus - but that has its moments too!) 

Here's the thing - they're technically still kids.  Their brains are still developing - and body chemistry is messing with them something fierce right now.  Sorry guys - but it's true.  That's part of what makes people your age intimidating to some.  You're learning how to be in the world - and it's a process, so it's ok to be in the "kid" category...  And adults - that means it's still your job to reach out.  It's not their "job" - but yours.  It's your job to notice the youth that sit in the pews around you.  The kids that are in line for treats in front of or behind you.  Tell our acolyte what a fine job they did today!  Instead of watching the kids scurry through the entry way into the youth room - say "good morning!"  Ask their names.  Names matter.  Using someone's name says "I see you" and "I know you."  Tell them your name - and quiz them on it the next week!  They like games! 

Why is all of this such a big deal?  Why does it matter if our kids come to church - if they decide to stay a part of a faith community throughout their lives?  Is it about making sure our numbers are "up" in the coming years?  No...  Not at all.

For me, it's about our kids knowing a God that will always be with them.  Revelations 1:8 says, "I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty."  Pastor Penny likes to remind us once in awhile, that if you live and breathe, you will have trouble in life.  We all do.  The gift is in knowing that God is with us when that trouble strikes.

I moved a lot as a kid.  I was lonely.  But not at church!  I started suffering from migraines in 3rd grade.  They got reallllly bad in college - so bad, I became depressed when my grades faltered, I had to give up volunteer positions, and I worried about jobs and friendships.  I developed insomnia - and no one, not even counselors took any of this seriously.  Life got hard.  It got dark.  And really scary for awhile....  Bad choices were made.  And life got even harder.

And you know what got me through?  My faith.  In those hopeless moments, opening my Bible to the verses I learned as a kid.  Dragging my butt out of bed and going to church.  Prayer.  No one really taught me how to pray...  But I read somewhere that it was just a conversation with God - and I remembered how Drake prayed at the end of our Sunday school classes...  And I started to pray on my own...

What would have happened to me if all those people along the way hadn't seen me?  Hadn't encouraged me?  Noticed me?  Valued me?  Accepted me?  Let me know that they were with me?

What if they had never shared this thing called "faith" with me?  The message that God is with me - God has always been - God will always be.  That God has been with them in their darkest days - and continues to be with them as they live their everyday, ordinary lives...  That God celebrates the bright and shiny moments with them - and cries tears of heartbreak when it all falls apart.

Because that's what I think matters - yes, it's fun to debate the big theological questions - and kids are great at asking them.  But in my mind - God's too big to ever know those answers!  It's the everyday that matters most to me...  It's the everyday love and acceptance that I try to share with our kids.  And that's something we can all share with our young people!

The author Anne LaMott shares a story about when she was a little kid.  She had been out playing and going farther and farther into the neighborhood, until she realized she didn't know where she was anymore...  She was lost.  In her wanderings, she found a police car and told the officer she had gotten lost and the officer asked if he could take her home.  She said yes, climbed in, and when he asked where her home was...  she said the name of her church!  She couldn't remember her address - but told the officer if he took her to her church, she could always find her way home!

Isn't that what we want for all of God's children?  A life oriented from a sense of "home" in God's family?  A purpose and community - where we are loved, valued, and never alone?  Where in those darkest moments of life - our souls have been opened to knowing God's love - in the midst of it all?

How can you be a person who helps to nurture that in our faith family?  How can you pass on the gift that your person (on your post it) gave you?  If we believe that God truly was, and is, and is to come - the beginning and the end - isn't that a truth worth sharing?!  Amen!