We hand-designed invitations. We gathered flowers into bouquets and lit candles. We baked. We purchased gifts of fine chocolate. And then we ambushed them, blindfolded them without explanation and trotted them about in disorienting paths until they had no idea where they were.
"They" were our senior-most Tahu girls. This month they will be eligible to begin attending girls group and we are most anxious to have them join us. In the past, senior Tahu youth have not transitioned smoothly into Lighthouse. This has been one of the greatest weaknesses of our mission. Determined to help make the leap as graceful as possible, we surprised the newly eligible girls during a normal youth night while their peers looked on in awe and confusion. We took our blindfolded captives back to the rectory, ripped off the blindfolds and welcomed them warmly to Girls and God. They looked so relieved. I think had we frightened them more than we intended.
Perhaps that unintended fright was a bit symbolic. The best I can gather is that it is mostly due to fear that the Tahu youth are not transitioning to Lighthouse. It's not terribly dorky or demanding to attend youth group when you're twelve. Over the next few years, however, that all changes. Dramatically. Suddenly there are many new fears to contend with. They find themselves drifting off for many different reasons, but I think the common denominator in most cases is fear. They've become afraid of God. Many are afraid He is going to ruin all their fun. Others are afraid of who they might become in God...someone weird, someone dorky, someone uptight, someone boring, a fanatic, a misfit, a cold prig, a judgmental self-satisfied jerk. Others are afraid because, like Adam, they have set foot on the path of disobedience and it's not so comfy to be naked in front of the Lord anymore. They're hiding from Him now.
the girls group members leading their bewildered captives
They're not so different from many of us. It often starts in the pre-teen years, but we certainly don't grow out of it at some set age. Many adults are living in a similar state of fear - only much, much more hardened. I went to Confession last Saturday, as is my habit. I confessed the same old rotten stuff that I do almost every week. But Fr. Michael always says something new. On that Saturday he told me to go back out in the church and to sit quietly and pray. He told me to picture in my mind that I was entering Jesus' throne room. He told me to vividly imagine the expression on Jesus' Face and in His Eyes. Fr. Michael instructed me to just receive His love, and added, "He won't ask anything of you". The minute he said those words, I felt the awful stinging of tears prickling my eyes. They were those unique kind of tears that spring up when something sounds so good - and you want so painfully to believe it. He had spoken right into my lifelong struggle to understand with the heart what I believe with the mind. Love and mercy. Not just "love" - but love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love. Times infinity. It's so easy to pinpoint that all I want for my own children is for them to know they are so loved - to deeply feel that and to experience intense comfort and security and freedom and joy in it. So why is it such a struggle to be the beloved child of the One who invites me to call Him "Abba" - DaDa - as if I could love my (exasperating) child more than He could love His. I mean, we're talking about a God who was willing to compare His Majestic Self with a CHICKEN, for goodness sake. Jesus wept real human tears over us and spoke of His painful desire to gather us under His wings like a mother hen does to her chicks, "But you would not". How much more desperate can Love get?
So there are those of us who just can't fully wrap our minds around His humility and gentleness and compassion. We try to serve Him but we do so a bit fearfully, seeing Him as a hard master more than a desperate chicken. Even though we may know all the proper theology in our minds, our hearts still have moments of pure cowardice. Will He throw our failures in our face? Will He say we weren't worth it after all He did for us? What if He is the kind who would point out all He gave and all He sacrificed and then point out that we didn't even show proper gratitude by ... praying more, forgiving others, being kinder, tithing more, living more simply, becoming a nun....
If that image of the "hard master" goes uncorrected, the fear turns to rebellion. Who wants to be a slave to someone like that? I've seen this play out with the youth, with former students, with peers. God is rejected out of fear of what He might demand. People begin to believe that God really is all about you can't and thou shalt not and no more and give up this. There are kids who won't come to youth group because they are afraid of what God will take from them. What will I lose? I won't be able to enjoy life. God will wreck my happiness. This seems to be the most common misperception that is holding teens back from youth group (and is probably not uncommonly holding adults back from church as well).
There are those who are afraid that God is an affectionate Father only to those who "deserve" it - and that they do not. They are not one of those "holy types", those good children whom the Father naturally loves. They are outright sinful. They have done bad things. They may have heard that the greater our sin, the greater our claim on God's mercy but it's beyond human comprehension. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Or maybe the Prodigal Son was much more repentant than they are. Either way, they have trouble seeing themselves as beloved children. They "get" that the more serious a child's illness or injury, the more tender, concerned and recklessly extravagant the human parent's love. They definitely can understand that the economy of mercy works in that fashion with mortal currency, but they cannot grasp that the greater their sin - the more they have been injured and sickened by sin - the more that compassion and help flow forth from the Father in heaven.
The above is not a comprehensive list of why kids stop coming to youth group and adults stop going to church. Some blithely assume that God will accept whatever He gets and they need not bother with Him too much. There are those who simply don't believe or don't care. There are those who have vaguely decided to procrastinate on all things spiritual until some unspecified "later" date. There are those whose families do not wish them to come. There are budding athletes and musicians who prioritize developing the gifts over developing a relationship with the Giver. There are those who are angry with God because they rubbed the lamp but the All-Powerful Genie didn't obey. And on and on and on.
It is our hope that each of the girls that we ambushed last week makes the decision to continue attending youth group after she "graduates" Tahu in December. It is an essential part of our task to try to understand why she probably won't. And it is a vital part of our mission to then venture up to the brambles and cliffs and see if any of the lost sheep are willing to be found. If necessary, we bring chocolate.