Last Friday night I led the closing retreat for our Confirmation class. During some of their free time, the youth played hide-and-seek throughout the building. They have another name for it–a cooler name, a name that doesn’t sound like something little kids would play. But it’s still hide-and-seek, just done in teams. Anyway, I have noticed that teenagers tend to set the same rules every time they play this game in the church: You can hide anywhere upstairs, but downstairs is off limits. Why? “Because it’s scary down there.”
I figured it was the dark. I figured they were afraid of going downstairs because it’s dark down there, with lots of places an intruder could hide. Plus, with six external doors on that level, there’s a greater chance someone could get in. But I was wrong. When I asked the kids why they didn’t want to go downstairs, their answer was: “Churches are creepy at night.”
Now, perhaps there is a whole genre of teen movies that I have missed–horror flicks that take place in church basements, where the bad guy hides in the fellowship hall just waiting for unsuspecting kids to wander into the kitchen in search of paper plates. But if not, then why are churches creepy at night?
One student reluctantly explained. “It’s because you don’t know what you’re going to run into.”
“And just what do you think you’re going to run into?”
One of the kids gasped, “God!”
I said, “If you think that running into God makes the church scary, then I have done a really bad job teaching this class!”
If you were to ask these confirmands specific questions about their beliefs, I think they would tell you about a God of love and grace and mercy. So why would they be afraid of running into God in a dark dining room?
The same reasons we adults are.
After all, we don’t know what God looks like or what it would feel like to bump into God in the hallway. What would you say? “Excuse me, but you’re blocking the door to the bathroom?” God is so “other” that we might be overwhelmed or overcome or simply in over our heads. There’s a reason that every time an angel appears in the Bible, the first words spoken are “Fear not.”
Besides, too many of us haven’t outgrown the “scary old guy in the sky” theology that we were taught, explicitly or implicitly, as children. We think God is going to punish us if we step one toe over the line–and usually all the fun stuff is on the other side of that line. We think God is going to condemn us for everything from our bad choices to our bad hair days (or other things equally as human). Who would want to run into that in the dark?
Then there is the fear of how such an encounter might change us, what such an encounter might require of us. If we actually met God face-to-face, would we be forced to put into practice all those teachings? Like the ones about feeding the hungry and sharing with the poor? Even the ones about loving our enemies and forgiving those who persecute us?
But mostly I think it’s because of the game we’re playing: hide-and-seek. If I’m going to play hide-and-seek, I do not want to do it with someone from truly sees me. Someone who knows me. Someone I cannot fool. Someone from whom I cannot hide.
People who don’t come to church often say they think the roof will cave in if they attend. I don’t think they’re really worried about the roof caving in. I think they’re worried about their walls falling down.
My daughter apparently knows not to fear God. A few months ago she came in from walking the dog at dusk and said, “Mommy, I just saw God.” I asked what God looked like, and she said, “God was the mist.” Apparently there was lots of mist that night, but only one “puff” of it was God. I asked how it felt, and she said, “At first I was scared because I’ve never been in the presence of God before. But then I felt all safe because I knew God was there to protect me. That’s how I knew it was God.”
I hope she doesn’t forget that by the time she’s in Confirmation class. Maybe she’ll be able to teach the other confirmands not to be afraid of running into God in the basement. Maybe she can remind me, in case I forget.
Oh, and one more thing. One of those kids who was afraid of running into God wrote this prayer:
“God, you’ve told me to take in all that I can, so that I can see, hear, and know love. I will never let you leave my heart. You will always be my home.”
That doesn’t sound like fear to me.