I find myself caught between rules and structures and freedom. Sometimes it is me who is pushing the ‘rules,’ whether they be traditions, expectations, ‘traditional values’ or the rules, regulations or laws of a society, an organisation or a group. Sometimes these rules are unwritten, expected and understood implicitly – at least by the long-term members. Sometimes I am the one who is pushing up against expectations and the expected rules of engagement, whether at a national level or through organisations and groups in which I am part.
I confess that I am continually frustrated the expectation that ‘we’ve always done it this way,’ or ‘that’s just the way it is,’ or ‘that’s what the rules say.’ I am frustrated by myself when I use this rhetoric on others and realise belatedly that I have not understood a person’s life and not acted within relationship but built boundaries and barriers, small and large. I shared with a congregation last week as story of when I was a youth leader many years ago. There were a group of street kids, young blokes who wandered the streets of our suburb, harassing shopkeepers and other people, sitting in the parks drinking – if they could get hold of something – and generally bored and lost. They connected with a couple of us somewhat accidentally and decided the join the youth group – it was something to do and we’d accepted them.
They didn’t really know how to act or what expectations there might be in a youth group or even how to behave in a church building. They were pretty wild and outrageous and created some very interesting and difficult moments. They were the centre of much frustration and also important moments of learning and experience. Amongst the many situations and experiences I had, there is one that stands as a reminder of how my own expectations (think rules, requirements, values…) are not always universally understood nor helpful.
We were in youth group and one of the leaders was trying to give a bit of a talk – I can’t remember the topic. The groups was large and there was the usual distractions as people settled down for the 10 minutes or so. One of the young blokes was a little off his tree and somewhat hyperactive. He was laughing and making inane comments and acting out. I and others gently asked him to stop and ‘behave’. He didn’t, wouldn’t or couldn’t. After a bit I lost it and yelled at him, something about having respect or behaving properly not like an idiot… I can’t remember but it was probably over the top. It had the desired effect of shutting him up and allowing the youth group to get on with the talk.
After the words were out of my mouth, I somewhat regretted it. This guy was one of the street kids we’d built a rapport with but I didn’t really know him as well as others – he was a follower and just egged the leaders on. I looked over and saw him with his head in his hands, sulking and not so much angry as hurt and shamed. I didn’t feel very good at that point.
When the talk finished and all the kids moved off to the games or activity, whatever was next, I went up to the young bloke who hadn’t moved and apologised. He didn’t look up or acknowledge me – just continued to sulk. I laid it on and expressed my regret for having done the wrong thing and was sorry. Slowly he moved out of his sulk and we began to talk. Perhaps he was feeling vulnerable and just went with it. He told me his story of how he lived in the constant threat of being beaten up by a stepfather who came home drunk, dragged him out of bed and beat him up – especially Friday and Saturday nights. The stepfather would often hit this young bloke’s mum and he would try to stop it and get hit himself. Sometimes, if nothing was happening or he was really tired, he and his dog slept in the garage out of the way.
As I listened to this and more, I recognised there was a lot of other stuff happening in the background of this young fellow’s life, stuff I had no clue about. Whilst his behaviour was not helpful, nor really acceptable in the context of a youth group, in some ways he didn’t know much better, was not attuned to regular behaviours and expectations and had a lot gong on in his mind and being – far too much for a 15 year old. I realised that rules and structures are important, but they are not an end in themselves. Expecting this young bloke to sit quietly and act nicely in accordance with the ordinary expectations of a youth group was probably naïve to some degree but more-so not what he really needed. More than that, my frustration at his transgression of expectations and laws boiled over to actions that were not helpful and even harmful. I learned that rules and structures are important and necessary and most of the young people were able to work within them. There were occasions when individuals needed something else. Their lives and their contexts demanded understanding and relationship. This young man probably needed to be taken out and the deeper conversation had earlier. He needed to be able to shed his tears, reveal his pain and receive compassionate understanding and care. I doubt he really needed the youth group talk that night but we tried to fit everyone into the formula and then ‘punish’ them when they didn’t fit.
This week we continue reading through the Sermon on the Mount with Jesus (Matthew 5:21-37). In an extraordinary passage Jesus breaks the law open and deepens the significance in order to engender relationship above duty or black and white regulation. He cites murder in a typical formula he uses in these chapters – “You have heard it said, ‘Do not commit murder’ but I tell you… He goes on to draw us more deeply into what a healthy relationship is about, saying that even holding anger and hatred towards another person is tantamount to ‘murder’. In other words it isn’t just the act of physically murdering another person that is wrong, but the attitudes, intentions and feelings of hatred that we hold towards each other where the real, enduring damage to people and our relationships occurs. Through our feelings of hatred and anger towards other people, we erect barriers and boundaries to inclusion, love and compassion. We nurture conflict and tension and exclusion – and destroy community, unity and relationship. As the passage continues, Jesus raise various relational situations and draws us into an understanding that a break in respect, love and relationship through actions and attitudes is life-denying and lies at the heart of many problems we experience. Love and relationship is the very heart of Jesus teaching and life. When rules, regulations and expectations get in the way of relationship, we are invited to pursue relationship.
That’s what I learned with the young bloke in the youth group. It was more important for me to nurture a relationship of compassion, love and understanding and help the young man to grow into the one he was created to be – not force him to be something else.