What a Puritan Pastor Can Teach a Suburban Student
In the little subdivision deep in the Atlanta suburbs where I grew up, there sat several gaudy wooden signs right outside the building office. These signs depicted what was, at the least, an idealistic vision of suburban life. The pictures brought to life colorful (but not too colorful) houses and well-manicured lawns, straight sidewalks and shady trees. It was a perfect little slice of Mayberry, far enough outside the city to avoid the noise and the traffic, but close enough to afford its residents close proximity to the aquarium.
Suburban America really is an interesting enigma. While the above is a typical sketch of the Suburbia we see on the news, in magazines, or even through our own eyes, it’s deceptively shallow. Below the pristine surface, Suburbia breeds envy and comparison among other things. Indeed, suburban students are often analogous to the suburbs themselves. They, like their environment, are well put-together on the surface. On a deeper level, however, suburban students live and move and have their being under the weight of enormous expectations and a constant need to keep up with their peers, academically and otherwise.
To this point, an almost-decade old Newsweek article observes that the suburbs “no longer represent a retreat from the tumult of American life, but the locus of it.” Of course, this has only continued to become the case since this piece was published in 2009. Similarly, a November 2013 article in Psychology Today observes that serious levels of anxiety occur twice as often among suburban students from white-collar families. What might be the cause of such an increase? Suniya Luthar, author of this article, notes only one cause: “Pressure for high-octane achievement.” Dr. Luthar goes onto say, “They [students] feel a relentless sense of pressure…It plays out in crippling anxiety and depression, about anticipated or perceived achievement ‘failures.’”
I think it’s into this pressurized context that the Puritans speak most incisively. Few folks were as well-acquainted with the affecting and satisfying nature of the Christian faith as the Puritans were. To be sure, Charnock, Watson, Boston, and many others speak well to our anxieties and to those of our students. But perhaps the most fitting to speak to those very anxieties is none other than Richard Sibbes.
Sibbes, the Cambridge-educated Anglican preacher, takes us on a deep dive into the doctrine of union with Christ in A Heavenly Conference, an extended meditation on John 20:16-17. We all remember the story (or can look it up on our phones quickly enough). Mary, aghast at Christ’s empty tomb, asks the gardener what he’s done with the Lord, not realizing at all that the Lord is in fact right in front of her. Mary is completely distraught; her anxieties have taken her over to the point that she’s forgotten all of Jesus’ words about His own death and resurrection. As he reads this passage, Sibbes observes two critical aspects of Jesus’ interaction with Mary which helpfully speak to our suburban students today.
First, Jesus knows Mary. Now, of course, He doesn’t just know Mary in the sense that He knows she’s a Mets fan or that her favorite condiment is olive oil. Rather, He knows her on a deeper level. He knows her fears and her anxieties, her disappointments and her insecurities. Sibbes observes that Christ needs only to say one word to her: “Mary.” At merely the speaking of her name, Mary knows to whom she is speaking. Sibbes notes that “It was by a word which shows he took notice of her. Christ knows the names of the stars; he knows everything by name. He knows everything of a man, to the very hair. He knows their parts…He knew her, and acknowledged her too.”
Perhaps part of the nature of our anxiety to perform is compounded by the fact that we must contain it all. Certainly our students feel the same way. In expressing their anxiety, in being fully known, they are in fact no longer performing or achieving as they are supposed to. They are failing to handle their own business, to live up to the expectations placed upon them, real or not. However, Christ’s interaction with Mary exposes this self-sufficiency in us and in our students. The Gospel tells us that we are fully known, and that Christ is aware of our anxieties and our failures.
And yet, Christ still whispers our own names to us and to our students, just as He did to Mary, that we might know Him and His peace that passes all understanding (Phil. 4:7).
Second, in reading that Jesus is returning “to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,” Sibbes writes that when “we get fast hold on Christ, and cleave there, God can as soon alter his love to him as alter his love to us; his love is every whit as unchangeable to a believing member, as to Christ the head of the body. The promises are as sure as the love of God in Christ is, upon which they are founded, and from which ‘nothing can separate us,’ (Rom. 8:35).” Let’s take a moment and think about what he’s saying here. In Christ’s words in Roman, He tells us the only way we can be separated from God’s perfect love is if the Second Person of the Trinity is separated from God’s love. God’s love for us and for our students, then, is objective. It depends not on our ability to earn it, or to perform or achieve, but only on Christ, to whom we are joined by faith.
Sibbes observes that Mary, amid her anxiety, “had a misconceit of Christ, as if he had been the gardener. Beloved, so it is with a sinner, especially in times of desolation of spirit and disconsolate condition. They present Christ to themselves as an enemy.” Perhaps our students are afflicted with a similar view of Christ as a lawgiver, one who requires of them a certain degree of performance and achievement. Sibbes and the Puritans, in their meditations on the person of Christ in Scripture, help give us the vocabulary to preach Christ as a Savior and Propitiator rather than an Enemy, as One to whom they are joined individually and as One who has already performed on their behalf.
It’s important for us to see the Mary in all of our students; only then can we apply the salve that’s so badly needed. That said, as we read Richard Sibbes and as we read John 20, we should see a little (or a lot) of Mary in ourselves, too. I don’t think it’s all that uncommon for youth ministers to find themselves in the grip of despair, perhaps amid seasons of loneliness or an almost crippling sense of doubt. It’s exactly then that we need to hear Christ in His Word, who comes to us and calls our names as well, who sustains us and assures us that we need not prove ourselves any longer because He has proven all.