Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Defiant Individualism & Biking with Dan

Once more Jesus spoke to the people in parables, saying:

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen”
- Matthew 22:1-14

In the summer on 1990, back when I was young and in decent shape, I led a youth group of thirty-five teenagers on a week-long bicycle ride. We covered 110 miles the first two days, staying in churches at night. We spent the third day at Cedar Point, one of the best amusement parks in the world. From there we took a ferry across Lake Erie to Canada and spent the remainder of the trip riding to Niagara Falls. All in all, we bicycled over 350 miles! That was no small accomplishment and twenty-one years later I think I am still a little sore.

Let me tell you about Dan, a teenager I did not know when he became a last-minute addition to the trip. From the very beginning of the first day of riding it was obvious he was going to be a challenge. He was always testing the rules, always flirting with the boundaries, always pushing others’ emotional buttons. Incidents began to mount. Things like riding on the wrong side of the road, getting ahead of the group, and bumping tires with the bike in front of him. The final straw came at the amusement park. Dan failed to show up at our meeting location when the park closed. It was ten at night and we had a ferry to catch at 7:30 the next morning. The group searched and it waited. We knew only two things: Dan had told his friends that he had no intention of leaving at closing time and he had met some girls who were staying overnight at a local motel.

At 11:00, the other adult supervisors drove the group back to the church where we were spending the night. I stayed behind, continued to look for Dan, and went to the security headquarters. They radioed every checkpoint in the park, but there was no sign of him anywhere. At 12:30 one of the adults drove back to the park to get me. Keep in mind that in 1990 there were no cell phones so we searched for a payphone, found one near the church, and called Dan’s parents. It was 1:15 in the morning. I had hoped that maybe Dan had gotten lost, didn’t know how to find us, and had called home. No such luck. Dan’s parents were no so much concerned about their son’s safety as they were intent on defending him. They assured me that whatever had happened was not his fault. It occurred to me then that this kind of thing must have happened before. I told them I would call again when I knew something more. The teenagers and other adult leaders were very worried.

At 2:00 I went back to the park to see if security had found Dan. They had. He “claimed” that he had been waiting on a park bench no more than a hundred yards from where the group met at 10:00. Somehow, he never saw us, nor we him. “What are you going to do,” he asked me? “I don’t know,” I said. “I think you are going to have to go home.” “You don’t believe me,” he protested. “I swear I am not lying.” “It is not whether I believe you or not that is important,” I responded. “What matters is I don’t think I am able to be responsible for your safety.”

By the time I called Dan’s parents to let them know he was alright it was 3:00 AM. They too wanted to know what I was going to do. By then it was clear to me – Dan needed to go home. His parents begged me to change my mind. I thought of the 34 other teenagers on the trip who had been left with two adults while I and another leader were out all night searching. I told the parents, “Be here at 7:00 before the ferry leaves for Canada.” I didn’t sleep at all that night.

A four-hour boat trip followed by fifty miles of biking gave the rest of the group plenty of time to digest what had happened. Most were angry at Dan, some at me. A few felt he should have been given another chance. We had an open and honest discussion about the situation that night. After listening for some time, I challenged the teenagers with these words:

“Think about where we are. We are in a tiny church in another country. We are hundreds of miles from our homes. Think of the fun we have had so far; the challenges; the rewards. Think about our goal to ride to Niagara Falls. Could any of you have done this on your own? Would you have the resources? The strength? Would your parents have let you go on your own?

Each of us is here only because we came as a group. We could not have done this without each other. That means if you want to ride faster and farther than the rest of the group, you can’t. It means that if we haven’t reached our destination and you want to quit, you can’t. You can’t pull over and eat lunch whenever you want because we have to do it as a group. You must sacrifice what you want for the good of everyone else. Dan was not able to do this. He wanted to take the trip on his own terms and we all suffered for it.

On our own none of us is capable of accomplishing what we can do together.”

Today’s gospel reading of the parable about the poor man who did not wear the wedding garment always reminds me of Dan. The gentleman in Jesus’ story responded to a last minute wedding invitation, but did so on his own terms. He came to the wedding feast but, for whatever reason, would not put on the customary clothing required for the event. At a gut level I want to feel sorry for the guy. Doesn’t it seem a bit unreasonable for the king to expect anyone invited on short notice to be properly attired? Yet everyone else who made hastily arrangements found a way to wear the appropriate garment. If they could do it, so could he. It would seem that his act was deliberate and defiant.

I believe one of the most important steps in our spiritual lives is a move from a “me-orientation” to an “us-orientation.” It is an important step in one’s family life, in one’s professional life, in one’s civic life, and in one’s religious life. The simple truth is that on our own we can only go so far, but working together we can accomplish much more than would be possible for an individual. If you are going to have a healthy marriage, happy family, sustained job, make contributions in the community where you live and in the church where you worship, you are going to have to do two things. First, you have to discover what you can contribute to a common good and second, you must discern which of your personal desires and aspirations will need to be laid aside.

The man without the garment is judged rather harshly for his defiant individualism. He is cast out of the wedding celebration where the community has gathered. For Dan, the judgment was much the same. But beyond the shame and humiliation of being sent home, I believe the greatest punishment he experienced was being cut off from his friends, missing out on the rest of the trip, and not experiencing the joy of achieving our goals. And it was all so unnecessary. Thirty-four other teenagers managed to fit in even though not everything was to their individual liking. Dan could not do this and ultimately his punishment, just like the man in the parable, was self-inflicted.

The same judgment is there for anyone who presses on others a defiant sense of individualism; be it in a family, a neighborhood, our community, or a church. Such persons limit the world, their existence, and their spirit, to their own finite vision of life; never once thinking they could find something greater if they just looked beyond themselves. Martin Luther talked about sin as being “incurvatus in se” – a state of being turned in one’s self to such a degree that the no one else matters. In the final analysis, unwillingness to let go of self in order to join with others blocks a person’s path to fuller life in God’s kingdom.

In this parable, Jesus Christ calls for each of us to put on the garment of his selfless humility and to join with a community of faithful believers in order to experience the richness and joy of God’s kingdom on earth. How are you going to respond to this invitation? What of yourself do you need to lay aside in order to accept it?