The Struggle IS Real

Something happened at school this week that keeps running on replay in my mind:

A freshman boy walked into my office and handed me some stapled pages. "I would like you to read this and give me some feedback on it." This boy is a frequent flyer in the library, and for the sake of anonymity I will refer to him as "John" for the remainder of this post. I worked with his history class on a research project earlier in the year, and he comes in daily at lunch to play Minecraft with his fellow gamer friends. He's my favorite kind of kid--what others see as a typical Band Nerd, but what I see as a bright, unique young man doing his best to not get swallowed up by the conformity of high school.

I felt honored that he would hand me this paper because this kid is SMART. We've had quite a number of conversations this year about history, religion, and the various works of John Green--you know, the normal teenage boy talk. Every time I've had a conversation with John, I've felt out of my league. But what I lack in intelligence, I make up for in enthusiasm, so I just kept being friendly and open, and he kept seeking me out for conversations, so obviously he didn't view me as a complete idiot.

When he handed me the papers and told me that he just wrote it as a way to express his views on God, not as an assignment, I glanced at the title and it immediately made my heart jump: "Refutations: Reflections on God and Faith."  This wasn't going to be a quick "Great thoughts! Keep writing!" kind of read. Not at all.

I took the papers and told him to come back in the morning. I admit that I miss reading the writing of kids, and it's rather ironic because one of the main reasons I chose to leave the English classroom was BECAUSE of the writing of kids--the never-ending stacks of essays that never would grade themselves no matter how hard I wished.  Let me clarify that I miss reading the writing of kids who actually CARE about what they are writing--the writing that has authentic purpose, so it drips in voice and passion because it MEANS something to the writer. (Unfortunately, these kinds of essays were a rarity in my English teacher days, and the reason is the subject of an entirely different blog post.) John's "essay" is the best kind of reading because I didn't have to give it a grade. All I had to do was go into writing conference mode--writer to writer.

As I read this essay that wasn't an assignment but just an organic piece of writing, I first noticed that it had perfectly formatted footnotes. Yes, FOOTNOTES, a relic of English essays. (Did I mention that they were perfectly formatted?) I admit I geeked out on this, and my esteem for John grew exponentially. And then I realized that John can WRITE. He had perfect command of his syntax and mechanics. My English teacher heart sang, and it made me remember that feeling of reading a well-written essay and having faith that all was not lost for the future of America.

When I got past the giddiness over his perfect footnotes and use of commas, I dug into the words--the content. It became apparent that John was grappling with some heavy stuff in this essay--basically how he feels about Christianity and Faith. And to sum it up for you: John is not a big fan of God.

Conflicting emotions overwhelmed me as I read John's words. As a teacher, I applauded his efforts to use writing as a way to wrestle with this complex issue; to use writing to find his own answers rather than just swallow the views pushed on him by his parents. His arguments were all over the place; he was trying to take on too much in too little space, but he was using writing as a mode of thinking. That deserved praise.  If only we could get all kids to grab hold of writing and unleash its power to help them think through the problems and issues that they face in life.

But as a Christian, my heart hurt, and I began to pray for John. I sensed his confusion, his struggle, his sense of inadequacy in his inflated words. I knew that behind these "Refutations" was a reason, and I had a hunch as to what that reason for all of this refuting might be.

My writing teacher training preaches that all writing conferences should be about conferencing the writer, not the piece. In a writing conference, the goal is to make the writer better--to help him/her hone the skills that can be taken piece to piece. This is HARD to do because our English teacher brains are programmed to FIX the piece rather than grow the writer. I still struggle with this.

When John came in to conference over his essay, I began with praise. I praised John as a writer--for his style, for his correct syntax, for his use of footnotes that showed a level of maturity I haven't see in years. (Did I mention that John is sitting in an on-level English class? Not Pre-AP. Not GT.  There's a myriad of reasons for this, but that's a blog post for another day...)

And then I took a deep breath because I was about to "go there." Here's a synopsis of our conversation:

Me: I want to ask you a personal question. Is your family really religious?
John: Oh, definitely. They are over the top. They don't know anything about this. The will freak out when they find out I think this way.
---A pause----
John: And they have no idea that I'm gay.

I was right. There it was--the reason behind all this refuting.

I don't know what gave me this hunch that behind all of the bloated words that tried to bolster up anemic arguments, there was really just a scared, confused young man who didn't see a place at the Table for him. John has been told that Jesus can forgive ANYTHING--divorce, deception, murder, materialism, addiction-- but he can't forgive THAT. In John's mind, he's not worthy of the love of Christ. So he will use his intellect to go on the defensive. To build cases against Christianity--to refute the thing that calls him unworthy.

Who can blame him?

This is what makes me crazy as a Christian--when I hear my fellow Christians talk about their "struggle" with their views on homosexuality. Like that's the REAL struggle--to see which "side" they stand on when the proverbial line is drawn. In that selfish introspection, they lose sight of the REAL focus--the people who are truly struggling to find their place at the table of Jesus. That's where our focus needs to be--on loving people. All of them. All the time.

To scooch over a bit. To make some room at the Table. To take their hands and say, "You are welcome here. None of us deserve this. Come as you are."

I didn't try to preach to John. That's not my style. I did do my librarian thing and recommend some books--mostly the works of C.S. Lewis, and surprisingly, John had never heard of him before (score one for the librarian!). I could tell he was intrigued when I shared a little about his background (I considered this a glimmer of hope).

I don't think I broke any laws. I did not force my beliefs upon John. He sought me out. He asked me for my opinion. And I gave it to him.  I validated his struggle and encouraged him to keep writing as a way to come to terms and to read as many books as he can on BOTH sides of this existential argument.

I don't think there's any law against praying privately for your students. If there is, then I've broken it a thousand times. I've been praying for John--that he will discover that he is worthy, and that he is loved by Jesus. Even though he can't understand it. Even though it makes NO SENSE when we try to explain it with our tiny human brains. Even though he feels like he doesn't deserve it.

It's a crazy kind of love. And because He loves me, I choose love. All people. Every time. It's not always easy. The Struggle IS Real.

But it's worth it.


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