I really enjoyed my recent series of Lenten devotions. I enjoyed the discipline of having to sit down with scripture, to write them, and keep them short. I’m looking for something else to contemplate, probably Martin Luther’s Large Catechism, simply because I want to use it as a teaching tool. I should probably know what I am teaching.
But this morning, I was thinking of something else — about this ministry it seems I am called to do. About the young people it appears I am called to do it with.
One of my kids — I won’t say who — described life in the foster system like this:
You don’t matter. The law doesn’t exist to protect you. Oh, there are laws and rules, but they’re only used against you, and never in your favor. You mess up, you will be punished. But no one will ever be punished for hurting you. You’re nothing.
No one has to explain this world to me. I’ve lived in it much of my life. It was my childhood — nowhere near as brutal as the lives many of these kids are living — and it was also my experience in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (institutionally, the decision makers in the ELCA enforced their rules and adhered to their principles only so far as those could be used against me or it was convenient to do so; otherwise, there were no rules, or at least no rules that worked in my favor). If anything, I probably identify a little too closely with these kids because of this. I suppose that’s a risk. I don’t honestly care.
But they don’t have to explain their worlds to me. They don’t have to explain lonely, silent suffering. They don’t have to explain cruelty and indifference. They don’t have to explain incoherent and capricious rules that never work in their favor. They don’t have to explain never being normal, ordinary, human beings. They don’t have to explain the ache to be just that. Because I know this world. My wife Jennifer knows this world.
And yes, finally, these are people to whom I matter — matter a lot. Who love me and accept me and want me in their lives. Who don’t judge me and don’t stare icily at me and flip through pages wondering about all the awful things I’ve done that make me an inferior, untrustworthy, and unacceptable human being, a threat to all that is good and decent. Because there is no good and decent in their world, and they know it. To be wanted, to belong, to find some meaning in all of that — it’s all I’ve ever really wanted out of life.
I go where the Holy Spirit calls me. To people whom God has called me to love. And it happens, right now, to be a tiny handful of teenagers out west no one else really wants or loves. This is not what I imagined, and it is certainly not what I would have chosen.
We are all broken people, these kids, my wife, and me. Not in the generic, passive sense used by the church, used to somehow describe our sinfulness without actually pointing a finger or naming a name or labeling anyone an actual “sinner,” but as objects actively grabbed and bent and twisted and broken by people (in and out of institutions that include the church) too callous to care about our fates and wellbeing or so cruel they simply enjoy the sport of breaking us.
It’s hard to tell the difference, sometimes.
I love these kids. I think think they need me. I know I need them. They are my future, evidence that God does indeed love me and have some kind of plan for my life that doesn’t involve me dying alone and unwanted in a gutter somewhere.
They are my meaning. And they are my belonging.