Thursday, March 12, 2009

You mean God hates happiness?

So my kids came bounding out of "Reset," their Wednesday night "small group wrapped in a big group wrapped in an enigma" at their church. They hurled themselves into my car, which literally rocked sideways by the force of their exuberance, oh wait, scratch that, their energetic gleeful annoyance. They relished their anger, diffidence, outrage.

"Mom, Mom. You can't believe what Carl (youth pastor) is making us do! He's soooo mean!"

Laughter, lurching bodies, locking doors, punching radio buttons, zwipped seatbelting ensued.

They were ooc. "Carl is making us love God this week."

Oh the horror.

"He says we can't do ANYTHING that we like. We can't go on Facebook, can't watch TV (even American Idol!), can't play Halo or the Wii, can't use the computer for any entertainment. We have to turn off our cell phones, can't text or IM, or even listen to our iPods (unless it's [here they did the mocking voice of preteens] 'Christian music' which totally sucks because we hate Christian music). This week, we have to give up anything that makes us happy so we can learn to be happy with God only. It SUCKS!"

Not to be stopped (because believe me, by now I was ready to kneecap Carl and give him a supreme noogie on his head for wrecking God by inferring he(sic) hated happy kids), my two wild-haired middlers went on, "We HAVE to do it. If we don't, Carl won't let us come back next week. EVERYONE has to. We don't have a CHOICE!"

My brain worked itself into a tizzy - two contradictory threads of thought:

1) What an idiotic idea - that God is somehow squeezed out of life because you are happily engaged in activities that bring you joy and connect you to other people.

2) My kids LOVE this. They can't wait to suffer!

A delicate balance had to follow. How do I subvert heresy (yes, I get the irony of calling it heresy since I don't subscribe to orthodoxy) while joining in on the fun of exuberant self-flaggellation? Basically I did a lousy job of both, but saved it by singing really loud to Flo Rida's "Right Round" as we got near home.

Kids flopped on the couch once inside to indulge in their last moments of electronic saturation (they had until midnight), literally clicking the remote, setting up the DVR, writing elaborate FB status updates to reflect their newly adopted ascetic zeal.

I asked at one point: "How will you know you're loving God better than you were when you were happy?"

Blink, blink.

Carl forgot to mention that. They had no idea. I asked if they were supposed to pray more, read the Bible, use their time to serve the needy... They couldn't remember, even between the two of them. Liam said, "I'm pretty sure he does want us to read the Bible, but he never said so." Caitrin rejoined, "I don't pray to their idea of God anyway. I pray to the Universe, to karma, to Buddha." The next thing you know, we were talking about God (what God is, how to define God). I shared about this translation project I'm watching unfold on a e-list where all the God references are being changed to Godde to reflect the divine feminine, not just masculine.

Liam mentioned that God is neither male nor female and we all know that. Caitrin countered, "Yes, but if you say 'God,' your imagination goes straight to the beard." Which is why, currently, she prays to the universe. :)

I found the whole thing a crazy study in how too many people miss the point. If God, if Godde, if Goddess, (invisible, not audible - except perhaps for a few lucky people in history who report otherwise), how else would you experience happiness in the divine than happiness in the fullness of life? Wouldn't joy at singing the lyrics from Rent at the top of your lungs count as connection? Wouldn't chatting eagerly with friends online represent a reaching out to community in love and fondness? Wouldn't time with family in front of a TV count as a happy expression of bondedness? Why do we assume the divine isn't already being loved, felt, honored and known when we are happy?

I don't get how teaching children, especially, to distrust their happiness (to see it as competing with love of God!! What a charge!) is productive spiritually, emotionally or mentally? In fact, I'd say the opposite. It creates that strange split where any time you feel good, you have to call it sin... And that leads to all the stuff we deal with in mid-life. But Carl is too young to know it!

And well, there is a certain happiness to be found in abstaining... we love that at that age.



Deb Wiggins said...

I'm sure he feels obligated to do something with Lent so this is his attempt. I can't miss the irony that they are asked to abstain from the things they enjoy and go inward and yet this is the time of year when spring is appearing and we are given back so many things in nature that bring us joy.

julieunplugged said...

If only the leader had mentioned Lent. My kids don't seem to know what it is, so I guess they didn't know that's what it was tied to! Agreed about the irony.

atimetorend said...

It creates that strange split where any time you feel good, you have to call it sin... And that leads to all the stuff we deal with in mid-life.

Equal opportunity for the kids, getting them started early... I have experienced that a great deal in the church as an adult. Really great they can talk with their mom about it instead of being chastised for complaining.

There certainly can be a benefit from unplugging the kids for a while (I think as I type out an electronic response to a blog on the Internet!). Maybe it is a good idea but for the reason. And the wrong reason creates a completely different problem.

SUSAN said...

Excellent post, Julie.
Yes, we have to let go of that self-flagellation in mid-life, at least us former Southern Baptist's do. Carl doesn't know that yet and I doubt he could understand it at this point.

Twill be interesting to see how the kids fill their time, hopefully happily. :-)

Sounds like y'all had a great conversation, so that's one good thing to come from this experiment in loving God.


Kacie said...

Perhaps a greater point to be learned from this abstinance is that their happiness doesn't come from the "stuff", and therefore they don't NEED it, though it is ok to enjoy it.

julieunplugged said...

Kacie, I think that just may happen! One thing I see happening already is that they are really challenged to think of other uses of their time. They are also happy to know that all of their friends are abstaining as well. I told them last night about the month Jon and I fasted Ramadan in Morocco. It was wonderful! The whole country did it together; there was this comradery and an awareness that food and drink and pleasure were valuable and not to be taken for granted, etc.

The years we didn't fast were so much more difficult really. So I can see why they would gleefully adopt this challenge! It's nice to be challenged to do what's hard and to do it together. I just want to avoid the link that somehow when they aren't "fasting," they are less close to God. That's where I find it problematic.

Searching For My Willoughby said...

I understand the camaraderie in giving up, abstaining together with others. But after a while, even that wears off, and it's just you and God. I've been detoxing from over zealous Lents for the last 8 years, and I still don't know how to approach Lent without feeling guilty about everything I do or don't do. I've been typing out my thoughts, trying to see if I can start anew with Lent; so far, I still can't find a way to approach Lent.

I love this questions you asked your children: "How will you know you're loving God better than you were when you were happy?" Now I'm going to ponder that for some time.

Great post.

julieunplugged said...

Ha! Blushing at my misspelling of camaraderie. Thanks for the correct spelling in context.

Isn't it funny that a spiritual discipline can lead you to a detox? Scratching my head about that one.

RedGypsie said...

Ask them if they serve kool-aid.

Of course at some point the day comes when we realize what kind of evil can come wrapped in good intentions. Was it "discouragement wrapped in caring" you said the other day?

I wonder if this isn't somehow a part of what is meant in the bible when it talks about "adding to or taking away from" the gospel. This concept is not even compatible with what Lent is all about. Suffering for the sake of suffering is just stooopid and off the point.

"Let there be love". One can spend an entire lifetime just learning to love and let love be. It's no simpler nor harder than that.

jo(e) said...

Do you think he actually pitched the idea as "giving up things that make them happy"? Because yeah, that's weird.

If what he was doing was asking them to "unplug" -- well, that makes sense. It gives them a chance to experience other activities, other ways of knowing, other ways of listening, other ways of connecting to people.

I do love how kids can so gleeful about being annoyed with someone -- it's too funny.

julieunplugged said...

Yeah, he said "happiness." I agree about unplugging as a chance to be and do differently. But the tying of it to being allowed to return to group (if you don't fast, don't come back), the implication that these pastimes distracted them from God (without quantifying what being close to God would look like) and the general sense that suffering improved one's spirituality bothered me.

Kids are already suffering... :)

brian said...

I've got to say I'm glad I got my kids out of that place. Nothing but good intentions from the teachers. But, they come up with some strange stuff.


something akin to drowning said...

This is so great.

Heidi Renee said...

catching up on past posts, didn't read the comments, so I don't know if this has been said already. I've been reading old church guys lately and Bernard of Clairvaux has some incredible ideas about the four stages of love. It's been lost to the church and it needs to be brought back. I paraphrase:

1. we love ourselves for our own sake
2. we love God(de) for our own sake
3. we love God(de) for God(de)'s sake
4. we love ourselves for God(de)'s sake

i abhor the indoctrination that most youth groups profess, and having done it for the past 2 decades myself such surety makes me cringe.

i always say that it's far easier to teach against bad humanistic teaching than it is to teach against ugly theology - most kids don't know to question or talk about it like yours have - i love that you're engaging them on this level and pushing the envelope just a bit farther.

I would encourage you to push back at the youth pastor a bit to force him to really think through this process.

Fasting is an amazing spiritual discipline when it's done for the right reasons - all forms of ancient religions practice it - teaching our kids that self denial helps them reach greater understanding of themselves, God(de) and the world around them is life giving. Teaching them that God(de) needs them to give up media to be loved is so bass-ackwards...