Have you heard the phrase – faith is caught, not taught?
Most often I’ve heard it in connection with faith formation and kids. This week I was looking at our website – under children and youth formation. It made me smile and it made me sad. Pictures from our children’s chapel on Sunday mornings. Pictures of our youth group. Pictures of youth trips to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine for a sleepover called Nightwatch.
When you look at that page – there aren’t any pictures of kids sitting in desks learning about their faith. They are painting. They are laughing. They are on our playground. It doesn’t look like they’re doing anything specific to learning about their faith – because faith is caught, not taught.
Back in seminary when I was interviewing for my first cure as a priest – I met with a rector of a big church in the northeast. I was excited about that opportunity because of the location and the size of the congregation. And because it was a position that would be in charge of children and youth ministry he asked – how do you deal with the kids? How do you get them to be quiet on the altar, hold the cross the right way, light the candles the right way, and just stop all the squirming that acolytes do?
And I just remember looking at him thinking – oh, I’m not going to work at this church. And I replied with something like, “well, if I’m honest, when I think of working with children and teens – I just want them to have fun. To have memories that they enjoyed being at church. I don’t think it bothers me when they squirm on the altar.” It was a short interview.
And as I followed my call out of seminary it didn’t lead where I expected, but somewhere new. Somewhere I’d never lived before, never imagined living. Where I was responsible for formation with teens and adults – but adults were easy.
Teens on the other hand are not children. It took me awhile to get that faith was caught, not taught. Sure, when it came to children it seemed obvious that it was experience within community that strengthened faith – that had been my personal experience so I knew it was true. Creating community where children experienced love, belonging, acceptance, joy and having fun I could do that. But when it came to teens, unbeknownst to me even until I lived through it – I had way too many expectations.
I wanted them to learn a thing or two about the prayer book – about the bible – about Episcopal identity. I wanted to teach it and I wanted them want to learn it. But it never worked. I remember one pizza night they sensed my frustration with them – we’d watched something about the Nicene Creed I was desperately trying to get us to have a seminary level conversation about a council of the church (what was wrong with me?) And finally, Sean, an 11th grader looked at me – and speaking on behalf of the group said – Rev. Arianne, we believe in God and we like our youth group – please stop trying to make us talk about this.
Because faith – like love – is caught – not taught. Even Jesus doesn’t talk about it when he asks those disciples to follow. He sees what they’re doing – fishing. And not fishing like I think of it with a pole and a tack box. But fishing with nets – that would haul in a catch.
He takes what they already know how to do catch fish – and says, follow me and you will catch people. I’m sure if he had walked by builders he would’ve said – follow me and you will build communities, you will build people up. If he had walked about weavers – follow me and you will knit together hearts and strengthen relationships.
But Simon, Andrew, and James were fisherman. Jesus didn’t talk about what he expected them to do with their faith – Jesus took what they did – who they were – in the moment of that encounter – and said – follow me, and this thing you do, this thing you are for yourself and for your family – you will find connection to an even larger family. Follow me and you will find yourself caught up in a much bigger story.
Follow me and you will discover what hard to put words around. Follow me and you will know what it is to be fully alive.
When we encounter people who are fully alive – it moves, connects, empowers faith. We get caught up in seeing what is truly possible.
This past week I was moved, connected, empowered and transfixed - along with many of you, and millions of others watching twenty-two year old National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s aliveness as she recited her poem “The Hill We Climb.”
The poem in and of itself was remarkable – just to read the words from a page would be enough – but her recitation gave so much more. Ms. Gorman embodied her words, sang her song, prophetic, powerful. Aren’t you just amazed sometimes at what a poem can do?
In this midst of this major event – she created this sacred and gracious space that caught us all up in the net of imagining “what if?”
I would not dare to repeat it – but I want to lift up where the poem’s beginning and end (which is actually not an end but an invitation to begin again).
Her poem begins with a question “When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” And the poem concludes with the good news that we are the answer -
“For there is always light. If only we are brave enough to see it. If only we are brave enough to be it.”
The light that came into the world – asks disciples of any time to follow – to be brave and share their light with the world.
Ms. Gorman’s bravery in letting her God-given light shine – caught all of us up. Anytime we are brave enough to take what we do, to take who we are and let it shine - it builds people up. It isn’t something you can talk about or teach – it is something you experience, it is something you share. Because faith is caught, not taught.
Following Jesus is a way of being. Love, forgiveness, mercy – when we enact and embody the good news we are living into our call.
What if – we answered the call to follow this day – where would your feet take you? Where would your heart take you?
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call to shine our light – to be the good news of love, hope, faith, courage and strength. Give us the grace, Christ Jesus, to follow you.