We’ve known each other long enough now—2 ½ years. In that time, you have probably picked up on the fact that I have three grown daughters. During my time here, I have not bored you with tales of my daughters’ beauty, and well, their brilliance. I have not listed for you their astounding number of accomplishments. Yes, I have tried not to brag, which is difficult to do, as you know if you are a parent or a grandparent.
Well, today I am going to tell you a story that puts my oldest daughter in a good light—which I hope you won’t regard as bragging, but probably is.
Emily is in her mid-thirties now. She lives in Nashville with her husband, Adam. When Emily was in her first few weeks of high school, so a LONG time ago, she told me that she was going with her friend, Felippa, to her high school’s cross-country-track tryouts. Now, Emily herself was not a sports enthusiast. As a young person she had participated in Girl Scouts and Jr. High orchestra, but not sports. Feilppa, though, was into sports and she wanted to try out for track. So Emily went, with her. Her purpose: to cheer Felippa on from the sidelines.
Coach Mike though. He was a salesman, for sure. Coach Mike could sell meat lockers at a conference for vegetarians, or pogo sticks at a retirement home, “Hey, Emily, why don’t you try out, too? Felippa could use a running partner.” So, Emily joined Felippa on the track at tryouts. By the end of the afternoon, Emily had become an official member of the junior varsity cross country team!
Now here’s the kicker. Emily was good! I mean by that, she was disciplined. She was focused—AND she had the build of the runner. Slight, thin. Her Senior year, Emily was actually elected captain of the varsity cross country running team. Way to go Emily!
Now Coach Mike, besides being a good salesman, really cared for the youth on his team. He had rules—rules about how to be a good team player. And rules about how to stay fit and out of trouble. One of his rules was no drinking soda. Another was no drinking alcohol. At Emily’s high school, underage drinking was a REAL problem. Coach Mike instilled in my daughter that as captain, she had to set an example for the team.
Ok. That’s the groundwork for what follows. In Emily’s Senior year, a friend who was a boy, but not a boy-friend, if you get my meaning, invites Emily to a party. It’s at a classmate’s apartment in a high rise building. I know the party-host’s family, but not well. I assume, my mistake, that all is decent and in order.
Emily has been gone about half an hour when I get a phone call. Right away you think, car wreck, right? It’s not that, but there’s an “issue.” Emily tells me that the party is in a ballroom at that high rise apartment building. Lots of high schoolers are there—and so too, kegs of beer. No adults. She has left the party, and is calling me from the apartment building’s downstairs’ lobby. Her friend is at the party and has refused to drive her home.
My from-the gut-response is, “You stay right there, Emily. I’ll come pick you up.” But Emily says, “No Mom! Please don’t. How would that look?”
We get that, right? How embarrassing to have your mother, especially your pastor mother, pick you up from a party?
Me: “Ok, Ok. Let’s talk again after we’ve both had some time to think.”
So, I’m sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for Emily’s next phone call, which doesn’t come and doesn’t come.
Finally, I call HER back, even though I don’t have a clue what we should do. I hear lots of loud, happy party-voices in the background. Emily is laughing as she says, “Hello?”
I say, “What’s going on?!!!!”
“Mom, some of “the team” showed up and we’re having our own party, downstairs here in the lobby. “And Steph”—she had a good friend, Stephanie, also on the track team—“Steph will drive me home.”
How is that? DO NOT BE CONFORMED TO THIS WORLD, Do not give in to social pressure, do not just follow along, but be a thoughtful leader—in other words, BE TRANSFORMED BY THE RENEWING OF YOUR MINDs, SO THAT YOU MAY DISCERN THE WILL OF GOD, or in Emily’s case, the Will of Coach Mike AND the will of her mother, and most definitely the will of God. So everything turned out alright.
Actually, though, Emily and I both WERE influenced by social pressures every step in our decision-making process. I hope you got that. And, I am embarrassed to admit this, but I, her mother, and a pastor, DIDN’T do what I could have, should have done, to the best of my ability. I didn’t call the police; I didn’t pump Emily for names of the young people who were at the party and phone their parents. I never notified the host’s parents. Shame on me. By the grace of God no young person died in a car wreck under the influence on the way home from that party! As a responsible parent and as a member of my community, I should have taken steps. How come I didn’t? Part of my reasoning had to do with the imagined ire I would receive from angry parents. “What do you mean? My son, my daughter doesn’t drink!” Mostly, though, I valued Emily’s trust in me. I knew my “tattling” would have had repercussions for Emily at school, and might have strained our relationship.
The lessons to be learned here are: one--I, your pastor, am more of a conformist than I would like to admit. And, two, social pressure is a powerful force, a powerful force, that influences our decision-making, no matter our age. (Are you listening Emma, Discovery School?) As human beings, no matter our age, we want to be accepted. We want to be part of society, of a community, of a group. And so, we conform.
You know, maybe, that I have been reading a book by Reinhold Niebuhr, a renowned Christian ethicist of the 20th century. Well, did you know that Reinhold had a brother? In 1951, Reinhold Niebuhr’s brother, H. Richard Niebuhr, wrote a classic theological book on this very topic—how Christians do and should engage the world—He titled it, Christ and Culture. In that book, he describes different ways we humans have dealt with and continue to deal with social pressure, in other words, with culture.
One way we deal with social pressure, is simply to remove ourselves from society. When Christianity was just getting started, some of Christ’s followers headed off for the deserts. They lived alone in caves as hermits. Later on, they walled themselves off from the world, living inside abbeys and monasteries.. Some people today choose to live in religious sects, or in communes. Christian parents sometimes try to protect their children from the evil world, by opting for home schooling.
But that doesn’t solve anything. That’s because sin doesn’t cut vertically. As in, those people are bad, we’re good! Sin cuts horizontally. Even if you are walled off in a monastery, you can’t escape sin. There’s plenty of intrigue and corruption in religious orders, just as there’s plenty of intrigue and corruption in school cafeterias, classrooms, office buildings, state houses and the halls of congress. Sin cuts this way. Note, too: Jesus himself did NOT separate himself from the world. He was in the thick of it, arguing with Pharisees, breaking bread with outcasts, forgiving sinners.
But living too much in the world, putting our confidence in social constructs, is not following in Christ’s footsteps, either. Jesus spent a lot of time up on mountain tops or in gardens, by himself in prayer. And, when he WAS in public, he wasn’t usually conforming. His words were biting, condemning. He challenged what people did and thought. You have heard it said, but I say—how many times did he say that? He offended people so often that eventually some of those people had him crucified.
Christians DO have a responsibility-- to stand firm against what is un-Christ-like in our culture. H. Richard Niebuhr, the author of book I mentioned earlier, accuses especially liberal, protestant churches of being more like social clubs than promoters of Christ’s way. Is that us? I don’t think so, but we may lean that way, sometimes.
So, if you want to follow Christ, you shouldn’t separate yourself from the world, but you shouldn’t give in to the world’s ways either. But, don’t be too radical, or you could get killed. OK. That’s confusing!
Maybe, the best thing to do is… nothing. Look the other way. Dig a hole in the sand, and stick your head in. Doing nothing is not an option, either, says Niebuhr. Christians are compelled to challenge the status quo. Niebuhr encourages us to move from (quote) “Consideration to action, from insight to decision” (233). So, though greed might be the norm, we are philanthropists. Though complacency is the norm, we are activists. Though division is the norm, we are unifiers.
In the last chapter of his book, Niebuhr says that the problem of “Christ and culture” cannot be solved through study (and oh, how Presbyterians love to study!) but in the realm of “free decisions of individual believers and responsible communities.” Amen to that!
As Christians, and we are all Christians here, we make decisions, we act in the world, following Christ’s way and not culture’s way. Our ultimate goal is to transform the world. I have forgiven myself for my in-action years ago, and I strive to do better tomorrow, doing my part to transform the world.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed so that you may discern the will of God, what is good, what is acceptable, what is perfect.
May it be so for you and for me. Amen