Tuesday, September 4, 2012

being institutionalized

Today's sermon (really more of a reflection/brief message/testimony) represents a kind of full circle in my life.  It was prepared and given for a group of youth and adults at a place called Institute.  In the summers of 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2010, I spent a week at Baker University in Baldwin City, KS.  This week of spiritual growth, renewal, and fellowship for youth is called Institute, and it goes way back.  In 2011, when I was invited to come and give this message, Institute was celebrating its 100th anniversary. 

Find me third from the left on the front row from 2001, the year I was in leadership; the photo on the right is is the 1912 Institute group photo.
Institute shaped my life, my faith, and my calling dramatically.  To be invited back to share with the community was oen of my heart's greatest desires.  So, as you read this message, try to picture yourself as an awkward 14-year-old attempting to reconcile the faith your parents have taught you with what you are finding to be true in your own life.  Do we ever really grow out of that?
I Samuel 20:42:  Then Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, forever.’”  He got up and left; and Jonathan went into the city.
So, I’m glad to be here with you tonight.  This is just a very special place for me.  I was an Instituter myself, from 1998 to 2002.  I came from Lawrence First UMC.  I was on YCT in 2001, and Kurt was our YCTC, and if was everything you can imagine it would be.  I’ll just say that there was a gigantic pair of women’s underwear involved.  Now I’m 26 and I have a baby girl and a husband and other adult life things that sometimes still seem unreal.  But one of these adult life things is a job.  It’s a calling actually, as a pastor, and I serve God at Countryside United Methodist Church in Topeka.  Institute was a big part of what helped me find this calling.  I was allowed to practice things like praying, speaking in front of people, leading groups, and helping interpret the Bible to folks.  Okay, but enough about me.  Let’s talk about you.
How many of you have had one or both of your parents dislike one of your friends?  And you were like puzzled as to what they found so objectionable about this particular person?  I remember this well.  I didn’t have a lot of friends over to my place when I was in high school because my mom had cancer and things were a little weird around my house, but I went over to my friends’ houses all the time.  And they would offer me snacks, and I guess at my friend Becky’s house I got a little too casual about the snacks, because I’d start rummaging around in the fridge and the pantry and help myself.  And then one day, Becky awkwardly mentioned that her mom didn’t want me to come over anymore, because I was eating all their food!  I was mortified.  And that was pretty much the end of our friendship, sadly.
So, in our Scripture story, it’s like Becky’s parents but on steroids.  In that little snippet of Scripture I read earlier, you’re just hearing the end of a story between Jonathan and David that has a whole bunch of history.  Their friendship goes way back – they were pretty much raised together.  Jonathan was the son of King Saul, and Saul was, by all accounts, pretty much insane.  Seriously, to say he disliked his son’s friend David is like saying it’s been just a little warm outside.  Saul tried to kill David on numerous occasions, and also tried to kill his own son a few times for good measure. 
So I want to look at this situation in Scripture from a variety of viewpoints, and then we’ll come back around and see where we fit into all of it.  Imagine this from Jonathan’s standpoint.  He has this amazing best friend, like almost a soulmate.  Like if they lived in Facebook time, they would be “liking” all of each other’s statuses and photos and constantly commenting on each others’ walls and all the stalkerish stuff my best friend and I do on Facebook.  Except that one’s dad hates the other so much that he wants him to get in on the plot to kill his best friend.  This is the kind of stuff that psychologists dream of.  If he lived now, Jonathan would probably be in therapy every day for hours. 
And now imagine it from David’s point of view.  He had been plucked out of his big happy country family and forced to fight a giant (ever heard of Goliath?), and then after he won King Saul was so threatened by him that he brought him into court to keep a closer eye on him.  Then it was back and forth, up and down.  Some days Saul was really into David – like on Facebook he would have been following his profile all day to see his updates and stuff.  And then other days, (the Bible says there was an “evil spirit” that came over Saul sometimes) there were death attempts.  It was the ultimate “de-friending.”  And, because David didn’t have any choice because Saul was the King, he kept having to accept his new friend requests from Saul every time he changed his mind.  If you were David, you probably would have gone crazy just because you didn’t know if today was the day the King would love you or try to kill you!
And then finally, imagine this situation from Saul’s perspective.  Have you ever felt a little crazy?  Not like to the point of killing someone, but just thought to yourself, ‘Why can’t I get ahold of myself?  What’s wrong with me?’  I think Saul probably had no idea why he was so angry and violent some days, and then so kind and friendly other days.  Mental illness is scary, and it really can take you by surprise.  But I think we’ve all been there, just a little bit, at different times in our lives.  God knows I’ve been through some crazy times.
The thing all three of these characters have in common is that they’re human.  They share all of our human traits – fear, frustration, a little craziness sometimes.  A lot of the time, when we start to feel some of these more negative feelings, we imagine that we’re alone or isolated.  Not true!  All creatures feel this way sometimes.  It’s because we are creatures, created by God.  We have flaws, imperfections, reasons that people would want to “de-friend” us.  And we want to hide all of that, because we don’t want to acknowledge it. 
When I was an Instituter, I had just as many flaws and imperfections as I do now.  A lot of the time, back then, I felt like I was living a double life.  Some of you may know what I mean.  Sunday morning I was at church, I was always at Institute, I was always involved in Conference stuff.  But Friday and Saturday nights, I was doing some other stuff that was probably not part of what was being taught at church.  And even Monday through Friday, I was being rude and insensitive to people at school and teachers on a fairly regular basis.  Luckily, I had these faith communities at Lawrence First UMC, and at Institute, that helped me to reconcile those two identities.  Ten years later, I can say that I am now one person.  I certainly have other imperfections, but I’m not living a double life anymore.  And it was because I had this kind of community helping me understand that God loved me unconditionally, no matter what my mess-ups had been during the previous year.  When I came to Institute, I was able to feel God’s presence so near that I felt without a doubt that God was working in my life, even in those times when I felt like I was hiding from God. 
God accepted Saul, David, and Jonathan.  Even in spite of their fear, lies, death threats and general craziness.  And God accepts you, too.  God doesn’t deny any friend requests.  God can see all the photos, videos, wall posts, and statuses.  And God accepts it all.  Sure, God may want you to make some changes in your life, but it doesn’t ever mean that God has turned God’s back on you.  So, if you feel like you’re living a double life, or if you feel scared of someone, or if you feel bulldozed by your parents or other people in your life, or if you just feel crazy, don’t ever think that God will reject you because of it.  Rejection isn’t part of God.  God accepts you, God loves you, and that will get you through the toughest times in life. 

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