"Lord Jesus, Give Us a Sticker!"


Earlier this spring I finished a fantastic and depressing book by psychologist Jean Twenge called "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans are more Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable than Ever Before."  Twenge investigates the assumptions that many of us have about us--it's my generation, too--taking data from personality inventories given across the last 60 years.  Any of us who recruit volunteers or run teams sense things are changing--the way this generation relates--or doesn't relate--to institutions, their lessening sense of commitment, their anxiety and perpetual frantic busyness.  We are harried and confused and feel so out of control.  In her introduction, she writes:

Today's under-35 young people are called the Me Generation or, as I call them, Generation Me.  Born after self-focus entered the cultural mainstream, this generation has never known a world that put duty before self.  [She points to a friend's daughter, Jessica, born in 1985.]  When Jessica was a toddler, Whitney Houston's No. 1 hit song declared that "The Greatest Love of All" was loving yourself.  Jessica's elementary school teachers believed that their most important job was helping Jessica feel good about herself.  Jessica scribbled in a coloring book called We are All Special, got a sticker on her worksheet just for filling it out, and did a sixth-grade project called "All About Me."  When she wondered how to act on her first date, her mother told her, "Just be yourself."  "You have to love yourself before you can love someone else," she proudly proclaims.

If you're reflecting on what this means for the future, Twenge continues, you are not alone.  Trying to discern her role as a parent of this new generation, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Joan Ryan wrote:  'We're told we will produce a generation of coddled, center-of-the-universe adults who will expect the world to be just as delighted with them as we are.  And even as we laugh at the knock-knock jokes and exclaim over the refrigerator drawings, we secretly fear the same thing.'[1]

At first, it seems like a reasonable request.  The apostles said to the Lord, 'Increase our faith!'  Jesus has been pushing them pretty hard in the last few chapters.  Ever since the end of chapter 9, when Jesus turns and "[sets] his face to go to Jerusalem,"[2]  Jesus has been taking his time, but also moving, quite intentionally, into the hands of those who would kill him.  He commissions 70 disciples, jousts with a lawyer who wants to know who his neighbor really is; he teaches them to pray.  He has really difficult words for the Pharisees and scribes, for the rich, for those who have power, and then he tells them not to be anxious, not to worry, which I don't imagine was helpful by then.  Chapter 16 contains two parables that both begin with, "There was a rich man..."  We can't serve God and wealth, Jesus says.  And for those who are wealthy, a great chasm has been fixed separating those who HAVE in this life and those who HAVE NOT.  In the kingdom to come the roles will be reversed, tables turned upside down.

Jesus turns to the disciples, leaning in close.  Things will get hard, he says, but don't screw it up.  It would be better for a big stone to be hung around your neck and you dropped into the sea than for you to stumble.  If someone sins, no matter what they do, seven times in a day, you have to turn back to them, you HAVE to forgive them, Jesus says.  No wonder they ask for their faith to be increased.  They are exhausted!  I am, just walking through what they have lived in these chapters.  This kind of discipleship is demanding.  It is painful.  I mean, we don't get into this thing entirely for the rewards; but secretly, deep down, we kind of hope for some kind of reward.  For something.

A more sympathetic read, and one toward which I am initially inclined, cuts the disciples a break.  They aren't making an unrealistic demand.  Go back and read these chapters, just read from chapter 10 on.  It feels to me like by now they are simply asking for help.  Jesus, give us the faith to do this better _.__   You talk about being on guard, you talk about forgiveness...and we want to follow, we really do.  But we need you to help us out here, so we can embody this great love to which you call us_....

And Jesus' response, which at first feels painful, isn't quite as bad as it sounds.  According to the Greek experts, the phrasing here is more like, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed [which you do have], you could say to this mulberry tree..."[3]  In other words, Jesus is not quite chastising the disciples for their lack of faith, but saying that even a tiny bit of authentic faith which they already have is more powerful than they can possibly imagine.  Or as Fred Craddock says so eloquently, "Even the small faith they already have cancels out words such as 'impossible' (a tree being uprooted) and 'absurd' (planting a tree in the sea) and puts them in touch with the power of God."[4]  They do not need to have their faith increased.  They need, rather, to trust in the power of the faith they already have.

That doesn't mean that we get to take the day off.  Jesus asks them, in a way that feels in tension with last week's lesson, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, if they would thank a slave--treat him well for doing exactly what he is supposed to do.  Just a moment ago Jesus was uprooting the social order, but now He is keeping it in place to make a rather pragmatic point.  "Guys," he says to them, "you wouldn't invite your slave right in and have him slave sit down, at your table, would you?"  He is almost being absurd to make his point.  Are you really going to thank a slave for doing exactly what he was supposed to do?  So in the same way, you, disciples, when you have used the great faith that you have, you can be satisfied.  You won't ask for a sticker, you won't ask if you are now feeling fulfilled.  You will sit down, wipe the sweat off your brow, and be glad you have done exactly what you have been called to do.

There is certainly an argument to be made that we have thoroughly domesticated discipleship.  Being a good church person too often means you worship enough, serve on committees when it's your turn, do so with competence and grace.  You ask polite but insightful questions.  When you are finished, if you're lucky, we'll send you a letter.  I write all of my officers what I feel are heartfelt thank-you notes when they are finished.  Our clerk of session, a key administrative leadership post, just finished a 3-year term.  We spent time crafting a beautiful, if I must say so myself, resolution of gratitude that we read to him aloud with pomp and circumstance.  We stood up and clapped.  We know this life of faith is hard, so we find ways to avoid it, or avoid the most radical of its claims.  "Maybe," my friend Andrew writes, "Jesus isn't prepared to reward servant leadership because he believes it carries its own reward.  This is the way that we become most fully human.  This is the way that we fulfill our calling--how we become the very human beings God created us to be.  Maybe it is its own reward, to be that which we have been created to become."[5]

At the very end of her book, Twenge gives a few tips on how to communicate with Generation Me, how to engage them well in the workplace, as a broader society.  Her final tips speak directly to young people.  She tells them, she tells us, to watch less television, to value social relationships over virtual ones, to be on guard against depression and isolation.  Finally, she tells them that the best thing they can do is to get outside of themselves, to help others, to engage their community in a deep and honest way.  She quotes a 28 year-old, Drew, who says: "Individualism and serving yourself are dead ends.  Service to others and leaving a lasting legacy is really at the core of deeper human needs.  Strong relationships and community keep us true to who we are and help us to see what our lives are meant to me."[6]

I imagine that Jesus would push back on Drew a bit, reminding him that being true to who we are and finding meaning for ourselves is not the end goal.  It is not all about us.  But if we were to realize the power of the smallest amount of mustard-seed-sized faith that we have been given, we would understand that Jesus the Christ is at work even now through us, changing things.  All around us.  And our task is to get out of our own heads a bit, quit moaning about how hard life is, or asking for our faith to be increased like those disciples did, and live.  With the faith that we have been given.

Early last June I walked down the hall to my daughter's first-grade classroom for her end-of-year party.  After pizza we played with bubble wands outside, drew with sidewalk chalk.  The teacher had made a video interviewing the kids about the year; we gave the teachers some nice gifts to express our gratitude.  Then came the awards.  Pretty early on, us over-achiever parents realized that every single kid was going to get one.  I rolled my eyes and pondered the tragic culture we were creating.  Why can't we teach them how to do the hard things?  My daughter got hers, and she hopped up, excited, as everyone else clapped, as she gave the teacher's assistant a hug, shook the teacher's hand.  And those darn kids kept clapping for everyone.  They didn't get tired.  They weren't being competitive.  It was my problem, not theirs.  Then Miguel got an award, and you couldn't wipe the smile off his dad's face--he had gotten there just in time, sweaty, in jean shorts and a t-shirt.  And they clapped for Miguel.  And they clapped for Shrinath.  And they clapped for Addison.  And they clapped for Christina, who crawled out from under a table to get out from behind where she had been hiding.  Her parents, and who knows why, didn't come.  And I thought, maybe some of these kids know how hard life is already.  They get it.  They understand the tough slog ahead that will be required for them to be faithful in this life.  And if only for a moment, we could take advantage of the mustard seed of faith we have been given and authentically make space for another, then we will have done what we ought to have done....

Let us pray.  Lord Jesus, Holy Christ, don't give us more faith.  But through the power of Your Spirit, teach us to use the faith that You have already given us.  Call us to things that are hard, and that are true, knowing that a life of service to You is its own reward.  Amen.


[1] Jean Twenge, "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans are more Confident, Assertive, Entitled - and More Miserable than Ever Before." (New York: Free Press, 2006), pages 1 and 2.

[2] Luke 9:51.

[3] Sharon Ringe notes that the Greek phrasing is not in the form of a "condition contrary to fact" but rather a "condition according to fact.", Luke: Westminster Bible Companion, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press), 1995, pp. 218-219. This citation comes from a reference in an unpublished paper by the Rev. Andrew Foster-Conners, given at the 2013 gathering of The Well, Baltimore, MD.

[4] Fred Craddock, Luke: Interpretation Series, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990) , p. 200.

[5] This language comes from Andrew's paper.

[6] Twenge, 238-241.