Lent is a season of confession and absolution. Let this be a long-winded approach to confessing my desire for status and position and the absolution that comes from knowing that Jesus came for those with no status and no position…the UNCOOL.
It is really nice hearing from my kids and their friends that I’m a “COOL DAD.” While I appreciate the boost to my ego, I don’t think I’ve ever really been “cool” — at least how the world tends to define it.
Way back in Middle School, the social lines were clear. I grew up outside of New York City. Our school tended to have upper class white kids in it as we lived in an upper class white area. But there was still a mix. And you could either be part of “the jocks,” “the nerds,” “the thugs,” “the popular kids,” or some other designation. It’s been a lot of years but I can still picture the various groups, standing together in the hallway, eating together at lunch, sitting near each other on the busses. (Note: One member of our group, Ray, commented on Facebook that he used the term “Greasers,” not “Thugs.” Regardless, you get the picture, I think.)
I was no jock as that became a harder group to stay in as the level of competition in sports increased as we got older. My baseball skills were great up through elementary school but the pitches were harder to hit after that. I was never a thug or one of the “bad kids.” I wasn’t a popular kid. It seemed the popular kids had more money and more influential parents than the ones I had. So, because I did well in school and pretty much respected my elders I was lumped in with the nerds, regardless of how “nerdy” any of us were.
Don’t get me wrong. We were popular — amongst ourselves — and we had a certain level of cool that was not so socially defining. We were pretty comfortable with ourselves, content with who we were. We recognized that it’s OK not to fit and and so we gauged our successes by things other than the clothes we wore, the touchdowns we scored or how many girls (or guys) we had following us around. You would find me and my friends in the gifted and talented program at school, in the choir, doing plays, and hanging out together on the playground. We were not “outcasts.” But we just didn’t seem to fit into these other groups.
The social lines were pretty clear and it was hard for someone to move freely from one group to the other. Some TV shows and movies have shed light on this kind of experience: “High School Musical,” “Freaks and Geeks,” “Mean Girls.” Occasionally there was a burst of social upheaval as someone sat at a different lunch table, someone made a sport team, or someone needed extra help with homework. Among some of my old friends we still talk, over 30 years later, about the time our “gang” (which we called ourselves and you can see a lot of us in the picture above) defeated the cabin of jocks at a “Camp Olympics” on a school trip. The victory in the Tug-of-War was the stuff of legend. It was a day that upset our social order…for a brief time.
Over the years I’ve pretty much remained firmly in the “nerd” category. I’ve been kind to my elders. I’ve avoided joining in with the gossip or loose talk that we sometimes associate with those who are protecting their social standing. I’ve been Boy Scout level helpful in the communities I’ve been in. There have always been movers and shakers and influential people wherever I’ve lived. I’ve never felt the need to have the nicest house, the newest clothes, or fanciest car. I view social occasions as times to have fun and gather with friends instead of angling for some social advancement. I don’t get invited to the parties of the “popular” people and haven’t really lamented that at all. I’m happy staying home with my family watching the latest “Doctor Who.” In some circles it doesn’t get any less cool than that.
For some, this could be seen as as cause for celebration…an individual who is comfortable with his individuality. But as I look back over my life I note that while hanging out with my “gang” and while not being invited to parties with the cool peopleI have still found “cool” to be enticing. I have been blessed with awesome friends and an awesome family and some awesome churches. And, more or less, I have been perfectly happy and content.
But there is always the siren call of the cool, the hip, the newer, the better, the shinier, the more popular, the bigger just around the corner. “The grass is always greener on the other side of fence” they say and in moments of weakness I start wishing I had “the other guy’s grass.” And it can, at times, breed discontent…a discontent that I hide well under what occasionally becomes a veneer of contentment that I show to the world.
Is this debilitating? No.
Am I depressed? No.
Am I unhappy with my life? No. Not at all.
I’m doing well.
But…in a Lenten spirit of self-examination, I can try to take a look at the state of my soul. And I’m truly honest with myself, I can see the pull of what I perceive to be “cool” in this world. I see it in the cool bike I want and try to convince myself that I need. I see it in the cool house in the fancy neighborhood. I see it in the cool communities filled with hip hipsters and craft beer. And I see it in church too. I see it in the cool church that people flock to or the cool pastor. From the church side of things this is made stronger by the cult of personality I see with pastors on the internet and the books I read for how mission and ministry is taking place in growing cities and neighborhoods. “Oh it would be so cool to pastor THAT church,” I think to myself.
And I know it’s not just pastors who can struggle with this. It’s laypersons as well.
The first church I served in Indiana could have been called “Second United Methodist Church.” The town’s “First Church” had the youth group, the praise band, the cool associate pastor and all that. While no one said anything, there was a sense that we were always hoping to end up looking like the bigger church…although it wasn’t going to happen for a very long time.
In small-town Alaska there is a temptation to read about the big, exciting…COOL…stuff going on in other places. We see the cool pastors with the cool graphics and the cool websites. While we may feel like we’re just trying to hang on.
But you know what? That’s OK.
In fact, it’s better than OK. It’s awesome. It’s a privilege.
See, when we read the Bible, we see that our hipster Jesus was incredibly unhip for his day. He hung out with the nobodies. He hung out with those who had no power. And, instead of a mega-church he had a group of 12 guys who loved and served and blessed people where they were. All those things that entice me about the coolness of the world are things that have so very little to do with God. They have to do with status and power and public opinion. They are powerful forces. But they are no God.
Jesus knew this. When Jesus was out in the Wilderness, according to our Gospels, he was tempted. He was tempted to power. He was tempted to find something other than God to sustain him. And each time he send the temptation and the Tempter away.
We have a culture that is constantly trying to tempt us with status and numbers and size and position. We have commercials that tell us that we are better human beings if we wear certain things and drive certain cars. And in church life we’re led to believe that if we don’t have the loudest praise band or the catchiest sermon titles we don’t quite measure up and we are categorically uncool.
But, you know, if we “measured up” we’d have no need for a Savior.
And the Savior we have is the one who goes to the uncool.
So, with Lent this year comes my confession: I’m so not cool.
Yet I’m just the one Jesus came for.