I tend to live in my head. I plan. I question. I dream. I replay conversations. I practice presentations. I worry. Sometimes, while composing a response to an urgent email, I’ll suddenly realize I’m in a crosswalk, that there’s a car coming toward me, that the driver doesn’t see me. I stop thinking and react (not necessarily in that order), but then I wonder how I got there. Where did I just come from? Where was I going? And I remember. That e-mail!
Living in my head has made me a decent thinker. I like to observe. I like to dissect. I like to wonder.
But something I’ve learned, observing others—not everyone lives and thinks as I do. Middle school students, for instance, spend a lot more time in their bodies. Which can be a problem.
I envision an engaging theological discussion. They want to run and scream in the gym (preferably while throwing dodge balls at each other and with the lights out).
I plan a time for students to share the truth about what’s hard for them, to listen in silence, to pray for one another. They instinctively understand the sacredness of the moment. But for them it is difficult to sit and to focus for much more than a moment.
I ask a question about a Bible story. A student raises her hand and quotes a line from a Veggie Tales cartoon version of that Bible story. Half a dozen middle-schoolers begin singing the theme song. Some of them dance.
Something I’ve learned about me. Living in my mind does not necessarily make me a more patient person. And I’m not alone.
Contemporary Christianity has lots of adults like me, but it also has lots and lots of middle-school students. Several studies show that we can expect to lose at least two-thirds of these students before they turn 20. Which is a problem.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this problem. Observing. Dissecting. Wondering.
In the second century, a significant number of Christians were influenced by Gnostic thought, a kind of religious philosophy that separated the spiritual (good) from the physical (not good). That’s a simplistic (and short!) overview, but I’ve found my mind returning to Gnosticism again and again and again as I consider this problem. Our problem.
It is a problem that sees someone like me as spiritually mature, as more Christ-like. It is a problem that sees middle-school students as immature and, therefore, not at all like Christ (or not enough like Christ). We demand that they keep their bodies in check: don’t look; don’t taste; don’t touch. But they cannot help themselves. They are overwhelmed by music, hungry for experience, delirious with sunshine and wind in the leaves and open sky.
We want them to sit down. To sit still. To sit quietly. Just for five minutes. Please.
We let them play games. But we sometimes intimate that it is a reward (and a privilege). That it can be taken away. I’m serious. Listen to me. Stop that. Stop. Go sit against the wall. Hand me the dodge ball, please. Hand it to me. Thank you.
I hear myself.
And I recognize, sometimes, that I am part of this problem.
I have conceptualized the Christian life, diagramed it neatly on a virtual blackboard: a chalk-drawn picture of a man, standing on a cliff, faced with a crevasse he cannot cross. I have imagined that if I leave the body behind, my mind might find a way to float over that deep, dark hole.
I call it freedom.
Middle school students recognize the lie. They would not leave behind their bodies. There is too much fun to be had. Shouting, for instance. Rolling down a hill. Jumping into water. Climbing a tree. Running. Running. Running. Running.
I watch them. Sometimes, I join them. And I wonder —as I’m running—whether the problem is the problem. I want them to grow up and be more like me. Quiet. Thoughtful. Polite. They want me to join in the game, to help keep order, to know where the Band-Aids and ice packs can be found.
We are so different. But on a Wednesday night, running through a darkened gym, I get hit in the head with a dodgeball. And I realize that the real problem—if it exists —is that we do not spend more time together.