Yesterday I got to do something fun – I was invited to go into a high school class and talk about Christianity. Now, that might not sound like fun to many of you, but as a Lutheran pastor, that’s about as good as it gets. This was for a comparative religion class at the high school.
It started off as you might expect – there were some kids who were eager to ask some questions and many who were less than excited to be there. It’s high school, I get it. I wanted to make sure that I engaged with the kids – or at least most of them, the ones who wanted to be engaged anyway. And I think for the most part we had success.
How do you talk about Christianity? That’s the big question. You have limited time and Christianity is a huge topic. I went to seminary over the course of five years after all, with one of those being an internship year. My first year was part time. And throughout that, we still didn’t cover everything – it’s not possible. So how does one cover everything in a little over an hour. You can’t. So I didn’t. I talked about a few things that were important to me – living out my faith, Jesus call to love God and love our neighbor, Matthew 25 (when I was hungry, you fed me, etc), grace and mercy, etc. I talked about the spectrum of belief related to Christianity. There’s a whole range of belief that I cannot begin to do justice to. I talked about Lutheranism and what makes it unique as well – the Solas, grace and what it means (you can’t earn salvation and how that’s counter cultural to the American mindset), etc). I talked about the history of Martin Luther including the troubled past with anti-Semitism and how we as Lutherans have acknowledged and condemned it. And I talked about challenges in the church too with the long history of white supremacy and why we need to talk about difficult topics.
One of the things I started off with was what I was wearing – a collar. I talked about the symbolism of the collar. For some it is a symbol of comfort and for some it is a symbol of pain. That’s just being real. And that’s the summation of the church in a nut shell too. Christianity has been used by some for great good and for some for great evil and pain. It’s important to acknowledge these things and be real about them and talk about them with people. It’s not as if people don’t know it. Often, people have experienced it. And when we are open about it, it opens doors to conversations that never would have happened if we pretended that the church was perfect. It’s not.
And then I talked about a subject near and dear to me – the Memorial Blanket Project (www.memorialblanket.org). This is faith in action for me. It’s lived faith. I talked about how it doesn’t matter what we claim to believe, it’s what we do and how we live that matters. If you want to really know what someone believes, watch what they do. That will tell you all you need to know.
Then we got to the fun part – the questions. They were great! The students asked great questions and gave me insight into the things they care about. They asked about ghosts and exorcisms. They asked about animals having souls and if they would reunited with their animals in heaven. They asked about interpretations of the Bible. They asked about angels and demons. They asked about my conversion from Roman Catholicism to Lutheranism, which was the hardest question to answer in such a setting because it is so personal. Regardless of the question I was thrilled to be asked, not because I had the answers. In many cases I was unprepared for the questions. But I was thrilled that they felt comfortable enough to ask me the questions. For me it’s not about having the answers, it’s about engaging in the conversation. Western Christianity has been too focused on having all the “right” answers for too long. With these students, we engaged in conversation about Christianity, about what living out faith means, and about a whole range of wild faith related questions. I got them to think about faith. Hopefully to think about God a bit differently and about Christianity in a more expansive way than what they may have encountered.
When I was leaving the classroom, one of the students was walking alongside me and he thanked me for being in the class. I said it was a pleasure to be there. He said it was interesting. I asked him what was most interesting. He mentioned one of the questions that was raised and then talked about one of the things I raised up related to interpretation of the Bible. I talked about how the term homosexuality was not used in English translations of Scripture before 1946. That when you look at the context of the Scripture in which it was used, the passages are referring to power dynamics and that the terminology was interpreted differently. I was making the point about the importance of context in relation to interpretation and how a literal interpretation is not always a good way to go about using Scripture since not all of Scripture was intended to be read in a literal manner. The student thanked me for this discussion as the most interesting part of the presentation.
What a great experience. And let me just say – what a great class. Both the students and the class itself. it’s so very important for people to be able to understand various religions and cultures, to ask questions about them, to engage in conversation about them, and to learn from them. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of that experience in a small way. And as a pastor, this is the type of thing that I have been writing about – new ways of engaging with people. Not to convince people, but to engage people in conversation about faith, religion, and so much more. The church needs to get outside the walls of the building and realize it isn’t the center of the culture. People aren’t clamoring to get into the building. In fact many have been hurt by the church and are avoiding it. We need to be real about this and honest about it. We’re in a mission field and we are guests here. We should act like invited guests in a classroom – thrilled to be wherever we are, hoping to engage in conversation, not having the answering but really learning what people care about.
One last thing. At the beginning I asked the students what Christianity was about. They gave all the textbook answers. And then I asked them to get past the google responses and get to the core of what it really is about. One of the students hit it on the head. It’s about loving people. There you go. He had it. Simple. Uncomplicated. I told the students that we complicate things all too often. When it comes down to it, it’s about caring about people, loving them, because when we love people, we are loving God. That’s what Jesus was talking about. And that’s what it means to follow Jesus and be his disciple. That’s what it means to be a Christian to me.