We had a very satisfying meeting of the youth group at All Saints last night.
During dinner (we eat together before the program begins), I was chatting with one of the teen girls, "Patience", about her new beau, "Jordan." Patience likes Jordan a lot, but a problem is emerging: Jordan attends a conservative evangelical church, while Patience has become an ardently progressive Episcopalian in the finest All Saints Pasadena tradition. Though they haven't been "going out" for long, Jordan has been making snide remarks to Patience, suggesting that ours is "not a real church". He is, not surprisingly, vehemently opposed to our staunch support for same-sex marriage. He wants Patience to start coming to his youth group on Wednesday nights rather than ours.
"He keeps asking me the same question, Hugo", Patience said; "He just wants to know if I'm 'saved' or not. I don't even know how to answer that." And thus over tacos and brownies, I tried to give a very gentle, comprehensible explanation of how conservative evangelicals understand salvation, and why it is that they are concerned with being saved. Patience nodded along, and then asked the follow-up question: "Okay, so that's what he believes. What do we believe?" Knowing what our topic was for program last night, I told Patience that rather than tell her, I'd try and show her.
Since this was our last youth group before Valentine's Day, our topic was love. Not dating or sex -- those come later in the program year. Rather, we focused on love by talking about the four classic Greek categories of love: storge, eros, philia, and agape. We had our kids illustrate each of the first three forms of love with silly skits (all of which had to involve a group dance, a ping-pong paddle, and a line from the movie "Napoleon Dynamite", the one film every one of them has seen.) After that hilarity, we settled into a serious discussion of agape love. Yes, folks, even at ultra-liberal All Saints, we grounded our talk in Scripture. Specifically, we worked off this section from 1 John. As we did so, we asked the kids to share their own experience with feeling radical, unconditional agape love. Without being prompted, several of our kids immediately began to talk about their experiences in the All Saints community, particularly in youth group. "This is the one place where I'm not judged, where I know I'm loved no matter what", was a refrain that we heard (gratifyingly often).
In non-theological language, I made the case to the kids that salvation (the word that perplexed Patience) could mean different things based on different readings of the bible and church tradition. And while some of our dear brothers and sisters might interpret it in terms of who gains entrance into heaven, All Saints -- and other progressive churches -- make the case that salvation lies in creating agape community. If there's one thing that distinguishes progressive Christians from our conservative friends, it's our conviction that no one gets saved alone! Salvation happens in community, as we are saved not from the lake of fire of Revelations 20, but from our own self-centeredness and isolation. Salvation, for us, lies in living out the greatest commandment, which is to practice unconditional agape love. First we create communities of agape love within the church, and then we carry that message outside the church. We bring salvation through love.
If there was one bible passage I could offer Patience, and the rest of the kids, it would be 1John 4:12: No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. I love the way that the verse makes clear that God will only live in us if we first love others; it's a very conditional understanding. In a nutshell, this is what All Saints might understand salvation to be: the knowledge that God lives in us and we are making His love complete in the world through our actions and above all, through our unconditional agape love for one another. I think Patience was satisfied with the answer, and she declared that she and Jordan have a big talk coming up about the direction of their budding relationship!
Sometimes, a little voice in my head says to me: "Hugo, this is all well and good, but aren't you watering down the message of the Gospel? When you emphasize to your kids that religion is, at its heart, only about sharing and loving unconditionally, aren't you side-stepping God's saving work on the cross? By not making any judgments and loving on everyone with tremendous enthusiasm, you create lots of moments for hugs and tears and feeling really good, but is that all there is to the Christian story?" My inner conservative evangelical (I have many inner voices) worries that I'm taking an easy, non-confrontational way out; I worry that I'm "watering down" Christianity to a religion that, to paraphrase Lewis, is just "the religion of being nice."
But when I think about agape and my youth group, I think of the end of the gospel of John. You know, the bit where Jesus makes breakfast for the disciples on the beach? He asks Peter three times, "Do you love me?" And when Peter answers yes each time, Jesus tells him, "feed my lambs"; "take care of my sheep." I suppose I'm not the only youth minister who thinks of his beloved teenagers as being like lambs. And in my heart, I believe that by trying my best to love everyone of these kids as much as I can, as intensely as I can, with as much openness and freedom from conditions as I can, I am feeding them just as Jesus wants me to. My conservative friends will tell me that I'm feeding them a diet of sweet sugar that tastes good, but is ultimately not enough to end real hunger -- but I'm convinced and convicted that we at All Saints are giving them the real deal.
When all the hugs were over last night, and I'd finished up "checking in" one-on-one with a couple of kids who were going through hard times, I walked to my car and began to cry. Was it just my ENFP personality experiencing the elation that comes from prolonged intimacy with a group? Or was it a spiritual joy that comes from having done what I was called to do? With a fair amount of certainty, I'm going to say it was the latter.