Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Well-Rounded Man

I'm the Prince in the pink tights and the crown...
When I was in youth ministry people used to ask me all the time how it was that I could get along so easily with so many different types of people. They knew that it never mattered to me what a person's interests were or what their personality was like, I could always find a way to talk to them. While the opportunities are much fewer at this point of my life, that is still something that comes easily to me. And lately this question has been heavy on my mind: Is it possible for those growing up in our world in 2015 to turn out like me? Now I know that sounds both presumptuous and narcissistic (and it may well be), but stick with me. It is entirely possible that we don't want anyone to turn out like me, but that's not really my point either. Here's the deal. We live in an age of specialization and compartmentalization. Our society puts an emphasis on learning particular skills and hanging with a certain crowd. Young people learn early on to focus on the things they are good at and not worry about branching out into areas that don't interest them. Play one sport so you can become great. Focus on being a math & science nerd, or hang with the literary geeks. Be artistic at your own risk- that comes with a certain reputation and little hope of a decent income in the future. Writers are encouraged to write in a specific fashion so that other writers will approve of their work- sometimes rather than the readers.. We are teaching students to impress the people who are just like them. And whatever you do, find friends who are like-minded and learn to speak their language. Be a specialist in all you do, and that will lead you to greatness.

Here's where this post becomes all about ME. When I graduated from high school one of my teachers wrote in my yearbook that I was "one of the few people I have ever known who truly made the most out of high school." Why would Mr. Wolfe write such glowing words about little ol' me? At the time I didn't really get it, but looking back I can't argue with the Wolfe! The reason he wrote that epitaph is that I was indeed a well-rounded man. Let me brag for a minute- or maybe two. In my middle school and high school years I played just enough sports to have a connection with the athletes, almost all of whom I played baseball with in the summers. The most important social group in my life was my church youth group. I was a good enough student (with the exception of math!) to be in honors classes and be able to call the class "geeks" my friends. I sang in the school chorus (an athlete in the chorus WAY before Glee) for 3 years. My senior year I had the lead in 2 different plays (including the school musical- see picture at top) and was the Editor-in-Chief of the yearbook. I was not GREAT at any of those things (well...maybe the musical) but I enjoyed all of them, and more importantly, enjoyed the people I got to know through each phase of my high school career. I had friends in nearly every social group in the school and knew how to communicate with all of them. Though not nearly as cool as Ferris Bueller would be a few years later, I like to think our school secretary might have said this about me at some point, just as Grace the secretary said about Ferris: "Oh, he's very popular. The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, d*ckheads - they all adore him. They think he's a righteous dude." I learned the value of every person and ways to communicate with people who disagreed with me. And most of that education came about because I didn't know enough to specialize.

Me again. All things to all people...
All of that carried over with me into student ministry. Dealing with a wide variety of students and a wide range of issues never caused me grief. I was comfortable with introverts and the extroverts, with the party people and the nerds. I was at home at band concerts, football games, dance recitals, poetry readings and concerts filled with music I didn't really like because I KNEW how much those things mattered to the kids who were involved in them. My wide range of knowledge about various subjects allowed me to discuss the things that were on their minds, no matter what those things were. In the end, my 28 years in youth ministry were a success (to whatever extent that is true) not because of what I knew, but because of my abilities to communicate with all types of people in all kinds of situations. I followed the Apostle Paul's admonition to become all things to all people. My high school education had very much prepared me for my career. And it had absolutely nothing to do with books or tests...

So why do I doubt that today's system could produce another me, even if that were a goal anyone would have? Too much emphasis on specialization and "being great." We are asking kids to decide in middle school if they are going to college. We want them to declare their college majors in high school. Great athletes are told to pick one sport. We try to brand musicians with certain specific styles and labels. We live in a society where the old cliche "Jack of all trades and master of none" has become a serious insult. Too many young adults live in closed circles, unaware of the beauty, the challenges and the excitement that can be found in another circle. And these things show their ugliest face when an inability to understand different points of views turns to a violent response. At a time when the need for universal understanding has never been greater, we are pushing students to learn to bond with all of the people who are just like them.

Trust me when I tell you that the world doesn't really need more people like me. But we do need more people seeking to be like Jesus. More people who reach across racial, ethnic and religious lines to communicate in love. We need more people willing to "clique jump" and spend time with those who can seem so different. We need some jacks of all trades, willing to love no matter the circumstances or the consequences. And if you need to wear pink tights to make it happen, so be it! :) Happy Hump Day to one and all!

Because of Jesus,

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