Children and young people can certainly push one’s boundaries. They seem to relish in testing the boundaries and pushing them as far as they can be pushed! Adults do it as well but generally with less energy and adventure.
I well remember at youth group many years ago. It was a large youth group of about 50-60 young people of high school age. There was a diversity of ages and types of people in the group. There were the good kids who knew the ropes of church life and fitted in. They were happy to join in anything and get along. They were quiet and attentive, giggled and laughed and had fun. There were others who were less familiar with the ways of the church and questioned some of the things we did, pushed a little but generally fitted in and had fun. Then there was a group of young guys – they weren’t boys and thought, erroneously, that they were men. They were somewhat rougher and wilder than the rest. They were disruptive and somewhat course and in your face. They were different and something of a challenge!
On one particular Friday night we were gathered in a smaller room for the devotion, which was delivered by one of the leaders. It was the part of the night that focussed on faith, God and life. One leader prepared something that was relevant and meaningful for the group and helped them to understand something of God, faith and Jesus. The simple rules were that they were to be respectful and quiet. Preferably they were to listen and take it in, digest it and engage with it. If they weren’t going to listen then we asked they were quiet and at least pretended to listen.
On this particular night there was one young bloke who was a year or so younger than the others in the wilder group of males – he was about 15 and always trying to prove himself to the others. I can’t remember his name so I’ll call him Dave. This night he was in full form, full of bravado and cheek, which wore very thin very soon. He talked through the opening of the talk. He talked to his mates on either side and was asked to be quiet a couple of times. He made loud, rude comments and was again asked to be quiet. In the end I lost it a bit and shouted at him to be quiet, stop being rude… It was probably (definitely!) over the top but it quietened him. The look on his face said a lot – shock, anger, hurt. He held his face in his hands and rested on his knees and said nothing else. I felt bad.
After the talk when others went into the hall I went over and apologised, saying I was wrong to say what I did the way I did. I tried to explain why and he only grunted. After a bit he looked up and I saw he was crying – all the bravado had fallen away. I kept up the talking and eventually uncovered a story that was very sad and painful. Dave had a stepfather who beat him up, more-so after drinking too much. He often hit Dave’s mum and hit Dave regularly. Sometimes he would come home late, drag Dave out of bed and beat him. Dave found this group of guys and wandered the streets late at night until after his stepfather had come home and went to bed – he then slipped into bed. If he was home early Dave often slept in the shed with his dog so the stepfather wouldn’t find him. My heart melted at this story and we actually changed a whole lot of what we did with these guys. A young couple opened their home to the boys and invited them to go there and talk on Friday nights and at other times. It changed how we responded to these people. We moved from enforcing the rules, erecting barriers and borders and in effect inviting people to take their place either inside or outside the church’s boundaries. Previously they either got the rules, the culture, the ideology, the expectations and accepted them as is or went their way. Behaviour and belonging were based on expected orthodoxy of rules, structures, beliefs etc – the barriers we set up.
This and other experiences taught me and other leaders that God and Jesus are about relationships and love and that barriers only keep people from experiencing grace. Structures and rules are important for order but ought not get in the way of reaching out to people. God welcomes each of us as we are and where we are at and barriers often stop us from engaging with God’s grace.
I tell this story because I think it reflects the truth in the story that we will read this week in Mark 10:2-16. Jesus is said to be on the border regions of Jewish territory – beyond the Jordan River. Here some religious people come to trap him with a theological question. They want to check his orthodoxy – whether he is with them or against them, on their side or somewhere else. The particular question revolves around divorce and what the law of Moses (Jewish Law) says and means. The issue of divorce raises all kinds of questions and feelings in our minds, most of which are probably unrelated to the specific laws they were asking about. The point here is not so much about divorce but whether Jesus adheres to the orthodox views and agrees with the barriers, the rules, the structures that are in place. Is Jesus on the side of traditional belief systems or outside it.
In fact Jesus is neither. He offers an answer that is relational and about building relationships of love and trust – that’s what marriage is actually about. The laws that were often used as a source of injustice, especially towards vulnerable women, were not to become barriers to life, living and God. The religious leaders wanted strong boundaries and Jesus pushed the boundaries until they served love and relationships and helped people experience God more deeply.
Jesus then received children that people were bringing. The disciples tried to stop them but Jesus exclaimed that the Reign of God belonged to the littles ones such as these and anyone who wants to be part of God’s Reign must receive it like a little child. The way of God is to embrace the vulnerable and marginalised and lift them up. It is to bring the powerful, wealthy and privileged down so that they share their privilege with those on the bottom such that everyone has enough and has a place at God’s table.
In our youth group we had ignorantly accepted the rules, structures, orthodox belief, boundaries… and applied them indiscriminately. The above experience, along with others, opened my mind and heart to another way. Later I would take disruptive kids outside and we’d talk because I finally understood that relationships are the heart of God’s love and mission in the world. Barriers keep people away whilst relational strategies build community and enable us all to encounter and receive the grace and love of God. I wonder what in our lives builds barriers to people receiving grace, justice, love, peace and healing? I wonder how our churches and other organisations are perpetuating division and separation rather than healing, grace, love and community?