Seminary students I know post their class papers or parts of them on their blog. I am not a student, but I did audit a class. I also volunteered to contribute to a class discussion by writing a (short) reflection paper along with the rest of the class. Since it may be my only chance to do this, here ya go:
The setting for this account is a small town (about half the size of Wilmore) in the Texas panhandle, a kind of a suburb of a larger town (about the size of Lexington) just 10 miles away. It was coveted real estate for the well-to-do families who wanted a small town and good school for their kids. My husband, Ryan, and I were newly married and working as youth ministers at the First UMC there, where average Sunday morning attendance was 80 (which may well have been the average age of the attendees, too), and average attendance at youth events was about 15. We were not, for lack of clearer terms, the “cool” church or youth group in town. The First Baptist Church was experiencing a big boom, averaging hundreds in two services on Sunday mornings, and drawing most of the moneyed middle-agers who had teenagers, as well as many teens who joined there while their parents worshipped elsewhere.
The age of our congregation and the popularity of the other big church in town meant that we had very few youth who attended because their parents were members at FUMC. The rest of our motley crew came to the church alone, or via the invitation of a friend. We were, as our pastor once described to me, the “rag-tag teenage leftovers of [our town].” This was especially true of the boys in our group. Ryan, young in his life and his faith, already was living out a great gift: he sees and loves the people that are often over-looked. These boys that he loved (and, I think, parented) so well included a self-proclaimed Wiccan warlock, an abused and impoverished boy struggling with homosexuality, a neglected, angry, hungry child of drug-addicted parents, and several from broken homes whose parents were not believers or church attenders. Most were marginalized persons in the society of the local high school and our small community.
I got to watch from very close range as these boys began to practice something very uncharacteristic of teenagers: gratitude. Ryan went to their band contests and tennis matches, and they said “thanks.” He picked them up and drove them home, and they laughed out thankfulness for not having to walk home again. He prayed for them and with them, joining them in their hurts, and they expressed gratitude in tears and hugs and sighs of relief. One evening, one of the young men thanked Ryan and the rest of the group in a short speech before our meeting. Their actions seemed to grow from this gratitude, inviting other practices, like fidelity (for 5 years they were there waiting for us to unlock the doors) and hospitality (they invited friends and usually welcomed new-comers warmly). It was no adolescent utopia; they still broke couches jumping onto them with their skate boards, whined when the candy machine was out of their favorite, and pouted when Ryan was unable to offer a ride home or attend an event. Perhaps, too, their circumstances predisposed them to gratitude for the warmth Ryan offered. They had received so little of it elsewhere. Still, their gratitude was often obvious in word and action, and by occasional evidence in Ryan’s inbox and voicemail, it still is.
And the gratitude was mutual. Ryan was thankful for the young people who came to us, and for the chance to live out the Gospel that had captured him. I struggled with “youth group envy,” wishing for the resources and parental support I witnessed down the road at the other church. I was jealous of the other youth minister’s relationship with some of the kids who seemed more like me. Ryan did not, as far as I could tell, share my envy. I learned so much about gratitude from teenage boys with little sense of entitlement and a husband with no obvious struggle with envy.
“Envy,” writes Vanier, “is one of the plagues that destroys community. It comes from people’s ignorance of, or lack of belief in, their own gifts.” It had never occurred to me, until reading Community and Growth, to connect my struggle with envy to that source. Reflecting now on our time in youth ministry, I see that Ryan embraced and lived out his gift for being a father to people who need one. On the other hand, I set aside the importance of offering my gifts, wasting energy wishing God had given me different ones. This new insight offers hope of change. Sitting still and trying to only hold the envy at bay was fruitless, and begat no gratitude. But moving forward by offering ones gift redirects the energy and creates space for gratitude to grow. Another among the countless paradoxes of the Kingdom: gratitude is found in giving, not just receiving.
I’m left wondering about what ways I might be withholding my gifts from my community now, and so blocking gratitude. Also, after seeing the powerful and positive impact of the deliberate, public sharing of thankfulness from the young man in our youth group, I wonder how a church might create an avenue for expressing gratitude publicly. Would it be appropriate for large group gatherings, such as Sunday morning service, or would smaller settings, like Sunday School classes or committee meetings, be better? Or both? What about something written, perhaps in a bulletin, blog, or newsletter? How could we help each other find and use our gifts so that envy has less opportunity to creep in?