– By Walt Mueller
©2004, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding
Word is that “the curse” was lifted at about 11:30pm on Wednesday, October 27. That’s when frustrated and famished Boston Red Sox fans breathed a collective sigh—or scream!—of relief as they let go of 86 years worth of pent-up disappointment from dying year after year with a baseball team that couldn’t win a world championship. When it finally happened, members of “Red Sox Nation” celebrated their liberation from baseball bondage, and grown men who had rooted in vain for the Red Sox their entire lives were reduced to tears. The city rejoiced over the fact that the 2004 edition of their beloved team had redeemed the Sox from the famed “Curse of the Bambino,” a legend that had grown since 1920 when the rival New York Yankees had purchased the contract of Babe Ruth along with a loan against the mortgage on Boston’s Fenway Park.
Sadly, on the very same night that this year’s World Series came to its dramatic end, thousands of teenagers were gathered in San Jose,California, to deal with and find temporary relief from another long-running curse that—although it’s been lifted—lives on in epidemic proportions in far too many young lives. They had come to scream and sing along with musical heroes Sum 41 and Good Charlotte, two bands on a concert tour across the U.S. in support of their recently released albums. Ironically, fans who had gathered excitedly to hear their beloved bands, were actually dancing to despair. While on stage, both groups of young men led their young audience through music that clearly reflects the common knowledge and experience of human suffering that’s resulted from our fall into sin. The curse of rebellion against the Creator has resulted in the gnawing reality of alienation from God, others, ourselves and the world in which we live. Listening to the music offers convincing evidence of the fact that many feel hopelessly locked in the story of creation and fall, and they see no hope beyond those painful realities. Sum 41 confesses, “I’m slipping away in every way … and I don’t know why … I’m trying to make it through each day. I’m falling apart now in every way. I’m finding it harder to get by. There’s a hole in my heart and I don’t know why. Now I’ve come to realize I’m slipping away” (“Slipping Away”). Good Charlotte cries out for rescue in their song “S.O.S.”: “Is anybody listening? Can you hear me when I call? Shooting signals in the air, Cuz I need somebody’s help. I can’t make it on my own … Is anybody listening? Listening?”
The cries for help voiced by Sum 41 and Good Charlotte are universal. These cries are amplified during the critical change-filled years of adolescence. Whether kids are consciously aware of it or not, these cries are rooted deeply in their created nature as their entire being desperately yearn to be released from the curse of sin’s consequences and restored to their created place in relationship with the God who made them for himself. What they are really crying for is to realize their ultimate purpose in life so they can make sense of God’s world and fully live their place in it.
Rick Warren’s best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Life, addresses this most basic of all human needs. Its chart-topping status is proof positive that more and more members of our culture are aware of their spiritual emptiness and desperately longing to have the void filled. They are longing to be reunited with something from which they’ve been separated. The young among us are no exception. However, they don’t always express the need in ways that are easily understood or make us feel comfortable. When they can’t put the pain and feelings into words, they put them into actions. In today’s world these needs are sometimes expressed through violence inflicted on self and/or others. Far too many adults—parents and church leaders alike—fall into the trap of misinterpreting the oftentimes troubling values, attitudes and behaviors of young people as manifestations of rebellion, rather than manifestations of their cries resulting from their search to satisfy their yet unmet hunger and thirst for God. If we would take the time to listen and understand, we would hear and see with accuracy their painful reality described by theologian Alister McGrath in his book, The Unknown God:
“If there is something that has the power to fulfill truly and deeply, then for many it is something unknown, hidden in mystery and secrecy. We move from one thing and place to another, lingering only long enough to discover that it is not what we were hoping for before renewing our quest for fulfillment. The great certainty of our time seems to be that satisfaction is nowhere to be found. We roam around, searching without finding, yearning without being satisfied. The pursuit of happiness is often said to be one of the most fundamental human rights. Yet this happiness proves astonishingly elusive. So often, those who actively pursue happiness find that it slips through their fingers. It is an ideal which is easily put into words, yet seems to remain beyond our reach. We have long become used to the fact that the richest people in this world are often the most miserable, yet fail to see the irony of this. Perhaps this is just one of the sad paradoxes of being human. Maybe we will have to get used to the fact that we are always going to fail in our search for happiness. Part of the cruel irony of human existence seems to be that the things we thought would make us happy fail to do so.”
Multi-platinum recording artist Christina Aguilera sings about the gnawing emptiness of her generation. Her father was a violent man who continually abused her mom and siblings. Young Christina would cope by escaping to her room, lining up an audience of stuffed animals and singing songs from The Sound of Music to the furry menagerie. Her fear grew and the frightened little girl who was afraid of the dark had to sleep with the lights on—something she still does today. When Christina turned six, her mother left her husband and moved with Christina and her sister to Pittsburgh. Christina’s emotional pain and emptiness increased as she spent her elementary and junior-high school years being rejected by her peers. Even after winning a 1999 Best New Artist Grammy and achieving fame and financial fortune, she was spurned by her high school classmates at her senior prom. As she moved onto the dance floor to dance to one of her own hit songs, they all turned their backs on her and walked off. Her 2003 Grammy-winning single “Beautiful,” sums up the relational pain and spiritual yearning of so many in our culture. Each new morning brings her the hope and promise of fulfillment, but as the day wears on, reality takes hold: “Everyday is so wonderful/Then suddenly it’s hard to breathe/Now and then I get insecure from all the pain/I’m so ashamed.” She then addresses the experience she shares with her listeners: “To all your friends you’re delirious/So consumed in all your doom/Trying hard to fill the emptiness/The pieces gone/Let the puzzle undone.” Then, in her yearning she asks, “Is that the way it is?”
In his song “Something’s Missing,” John Mayer faces the same dilemma: “I’m dizzy from the shopping mall/I searched for joy but I bought it all/It doesn’t help the hunger pain/And a thirst I’d have to drown first to ever satiate/Something’s missing and I don’t know how to fix it/Something’s missing and I don’t know what it is at all.”
For those who have had their longings satisfied through redemption in Christ, they understand the reality of Blaise Pascal’s God-shaped vacuum. Alister McGrath writes, “For Pascal, there is a God-shaped emptiness within us, which only God can fill. We may try to fill it in other ways and with other things. Yet one of the few certainties of life is that nothing in this world satisfies our longing for something that is ultimately beyond this world.” As it has been for all people since the fall of humanity and expulsion from Eden, this is the great need of young people today. They are crying out to have it filled.
In today’s world, it’s painfully obvious that while the young are more self-consciously desperate in their search for fulfillment, they still aren’t getting answers. As a result, the vacuum drones on, louder and louder, always sucking in ideas and experiences in its quest for fulfillment. They wonder who, if anybody, will give them answers—answers that will fill the holes in their souls. Our responsibility as the people of God is to realize that we are the ones called and charged with the task.
Early on in Old Testament history, God spoke through Moses to the people of Israel regarding their responsibility to lead the young among them to the place where they belong: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (Deut 6:4-9).
This admonition was not just for the people of Israel in that particular time and place. These words are directed to God’s people today. God’s design is to use families, pastors, youth pastors, mentors, neighbors, friends and the larger body of Christ to point young people to a life-changing faith that gives them purpose and a place to belong.
But a look around our world at the reality of teenage life in today’s culture leaves us wondering if we’ve heeded God’s command. Families, even those in the church, are falling apart and malfunctioning. While many in the church have not intentionally turned their backs on the young, they are only “beating the air” with their words and as a result, our youth are leaving the church in droves. In some cases, the family and church are present, but unaccounted for. In other words, we’re there but we aren’t paying attention. Even though members of the emerging generations try to connect, it seems to them that nobody’s home. At times, we’re occupied with other things—some important, some not. At other times, their inability or unwillingness to conform to our expectations and behavioral standards leads to an angry retort or disingenuous lecture on our part. Sometimes they scare us. Or, maybe we don’t think they have any interest in what we have to offer. More than likely, the real problem is we haven’t been listening. Veteran youth worker and cultural analyst Dean Borgman issues a timely warning to the church: “When young people cry out in pain, we cannot respond with a shaking of our heads, detachment and silence.”
As we prepare for our annual celebration of Christmas, perhaps we should consider how our response to young people still under the curse should be shaped by the incarnation of the One who came to earth to undo the curse. First, we must follow the example of the incarnation by going to them, rather than expecting them to come to us. I love how Eugene Peterson phrases the example in The Message: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14). And second, we must tell the story of how that arrival allows us to move beyond the prison of creation and fall, and into redemption. The apostle Paul said it this way, “Christ redeemed us from that self-defeating, cursed life by absorbing it completely into himself … he became a curse, and at the same time dissolved the curse … Because of that … we are all able to receive God’s life, his Spirit, in and with us by believing” (Galatians 3:13-14, The Message).
Long before the members of Sum 41 and Good Charlotte were even born, I was a part of a group of teenagers who had seen the curse lifted in our lives. While our radios and record players usually played music that still groaned for redemption, we regularly gathered together in our youth group to talk and sing about our Redeemer. There’s one song written by Kurt Kaiser that we probably sang a thousand or more times. We sang “Pass It On” as a statement of resolve to let others know that the curse has been lifted: “I’ll shout it from the mountain top. I want the world to know. The Lord of love has come to me. I want to pass it on.” Will the church act on that resolve out of our love for Christ and our love for kids?
My friend Bonnie Liefer is a talented artist who designs cards that reflect her deep faith. Her Christmas cards are absolutely amazing. They visually and verbally grasp the meaning of the Incarnation and good news of redemption in ways that have been lost in our day and age of syrupy greeting card sentimentality. One card beautifully captures the reality of what will one day happen as the story of creation, fall and redemption comes to its glorious conclusion. The front of the card depicts a simple gold French horn. Out of the horn’s end flow the words, “Only a few heard the noise when He arrived …”—a reference to the day when the One who ended the curse humbly came to earth. Then, on the inside, is the message of what will happen when the lingering effects of the curse are finally and fully undone: “… but the celebration will be deafening when He returns.”
So many teenagers cursed and crying. A church charged with the responsibility to live, tell and pass on the remedy to the curse. Imagine how big and loud the rejoicing crowd will be if we—with God’s help— follow through in obedience to our Redeemer by loving and leading kids. We’ll realize then that in comparison, October 27 was nothing but a whisper.
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