The best birthday present you could ever give me

The best birthday present you could ever give me September 16, 2015
"Birthday Cake," Will Clayton, Flickr C.C.
“Birthday Cake,” Will Clayton, Flickr C.C.

Since it’s my birthday, hundreds of people (some of whom actually know me) have gotten the reminder from Facebook to post a greeting on my wall. My birthday also means that I get to ask for whatever I want, and even if I don’t get it, you have to humor me, no matter how selfish and juvenile it is. And if I write it on my blog, you have to share it far and wide, or else you don’t really love me and you have no business wishing me a happy birthday. Just kidding (mostly)! So let me tell you the best birthday present you could ever give me: it’s to allow me to be relevant to your life.

I was talking with a friend recently who described a struggle with being a college residential adviser for upperclassmen because RA’s are mostly irrelevant to college students who aren’t freshmen. He wants to foster authentic community and support fellow students in their lives, but they’re mostly all “fine” and “really busy.” Being a campus minister is the same way, especially on a highly secularized campus like Tulane University. I’m obsolescent, like the way that the church is becoming obsolescent in our culture. Nobody needs me because they’re “fine” and “really busy.”

And I don’t mean to denigrate anyone who says that they’re fine and really busy by putting those words in quotation marks. I don’t doubt that you’re telling the truth. You have support systems that are working. You’ve got a super-packed routine that you have to follow each day to avoid falling behind. The circle of people with whom you go to the dining hall, joke around when you’re taking a study break, and go out on the weekends has already gelled for the year. You honestly can’t add anything else to your plate.

I always feel a little bit awkward asking you to fit me into your routine, because today I turned thirty-eight years old. I’m supposed to be an adult. I’m supposed to wear my professional game-face. I’m not supposed to care whether college students are willing to make me a part of their lives. As a minister, I’ve been trained to crucify the part of me that needs to be needed, because that’s the recipe for codependency (or worse). I’m supposed to be completely available but also completely unhurt if everyone walks past and ignores me.

Henri Nouwen writes that one of the most pernicious temptations of ministry is to be relevant. He says that “the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.” I agree with that. I don’t have anything to offer anybody except my own vulnerable self. I’m not a licensed clinical social worker. I’m not a world-renowned scholar. I can’t fix anyone’s problems. I’m just a dude who enjoys nothing more than sitting in coffee shops and loving people while they tell me their life stories.

One of the hugest things I gave up when I stopped being a conservative evangelical is the belief that other people are going to hell unless they take me seriously and become a part of what I’m doing. Within that framework, there is a sense of urgency that allows Christianity to survive in a post-Christian culture. It creates compelling community to be a part of a group that thinks everybody else is going to hell and it’s our duty to rescue them. That may be part of why conservative evangelical megachurches are thriving and progressive churches are dying.

I haven’t stopped believing in hell. I just don’t believe that salvation is the individualist consumerist process that popular evangelicalism taught me it was as part of its tremendously effective pyramid scheme (in some circles). Hell is what your life looks like when you believe deep down that you don’t really matter to anybody, whether you admit this aloud or cover it up with various coping mechanisms. That’s how I understand what it means to be eternally separated from God. It’s being utterly irrelevant to the universe, and thus living by yourself in a universe of one, even if you are using other people as objects to serve your needs. I don’t think God sends us to hell as a punishment for breaking his rules. I think our sin creates hell by alienating us from each other and God. The hardest thing in the world to really believe in our hearts is that we matter infinitely to God who is constantly willing to forgive us and give us a fresh start. It’s because I haven’t fully embraced that truth yet that I need validation from other people.

Our social reality is getting more and more fragmented every day. Campus ministers aren’t the only thing that’s obsolescent in our culture. Dating has become obsolescent too. We are being socialized to believe that our entire life is supposed to be built around something called a “career.” That’s why we don’t have time for anything else. It’s also part of what creates my existential crisis. When I think of my ministry as a career that is becoming mostly irrelevant, then all the years of training and shaping that brought me here are a complete waste. My job security depends on proving to the people who give me money that I’m still relevant.

I’ve thought about getting trained and credentialed as a counselor. Psychology has mostly taken the place of religion in our culture. But my issue with counseling is it feels like paying somebody to be a true friend. It’s totally inappropriate to say that for multiple reasons. Counselors are not friends; they’re professionals. But I wonder how many people only get to say how they’re really feeling when they’re talking to professionals. When I used to have a therapist, his unconditional positive regard always felt disingenuous even though he was a very nice and sincere man. I would think well of course you’re telling me not to beat myself up and paying me compliments; it’s because I’m paying you. I’d much rather create a community of authentic amateurs who listen deeply to each other and make each other relevant to their lives without charging a fee.

Creating authentic, organic community from scratch on a busy college campus is about as easy as starting a charcoal fire without any lighter fluid. I actually had that physical experience last year at a college tailgate. I bought the match-light, pre-soaked charcoal that’s supposed to be easy. What I didn’t realize is that once you open the bag, the lighter fluid evaporates, so the second time you use the charcoal, it’s basically useless unless you pour tons and tons of lighter fluid, which makes a giant flame that causes everyone around you to get very concerned before it burns off without having made the charcoal hot enough to cook burgers. I feel like I do that a lot in my ministry. I try to build relationships with people, and when they aren’t warming up quickly enough, I pour more and more lighter fluid onto the fire until they run away.

It may be that my understanding of the gospel is what has made me irrelevant. Because what I believe God wants to say more than anything else is not you’re wicked and I’m angry, but you matter. And it seems like the most common response to a banal Oprah-sounding message like that is “Aw, you’re sweet. I already knew that. Thanks. See ya.” But what if the reason you don’t have time to listen to people say that you matter is because you’re so focused on building the career by which you’ll prove to the world that you really do matter? If that’s the case, then you’re no different than me. Insofar as ministry is just another career ladder by which I establish my importance, I’m doomed in a world that has replaced me with yoga and psychotherapists.

But if there really is a God who is somehow orchestrating things behind the scenes, then maybe he’ll have mercy on my pathetic need for relevance and give me my birthday present. Maybe I’ll get to sit down with somebody who needs encouragement and hope, and I’ll say words to them that I start to believe myself. It’s strange how that works. I should have faith on my own. But nothing gives me faith more than when other people let me speak hope into their lives. That’s the space where I learn to say Yes, God is real; I’m not making this up.

And maybe God will humor my pathetic need to measure my self-worth and relevance to the world by how many people share my blog posts. More likely, he’ll break me of this need by letting this post descend into irrelevance while my Facebook wall is plastered with hundreds of generic birthday greetings. Either way, I’m going to try to have a happy birthday now.

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