BE IMITATORS OF ME
Therefore, be imitators of God.
So says Ephesians 5 verse 1.
Stop to think about that one, for a moment.
It’s easier, on the face of it, to imitate Superman or Wonder Woman. Or if you’re Marvel rather than DC, and I know there is a tribal divide, easier to imitate Iron Man or Black Widow. How on earth can we imitate the one who had the power to create the farthest reaches of space?
There is an answer for this, of course. Because this God also emptied himself and became a servant, offering an example of humility we can all grasp. But even this asks a lot of us, because we seem to be hard-wired to get status in life, not to lose it.
Thank God for the Holy Spirit, whose power within us is capable of revolution. But thank God also for another bit in scripture, where St Paul says: be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. St Paul may still seem a distant figure, but his failings were large enough to give the rest of us hope.
How interesting, that he asked people to imitate him, when he could have simply said, be filled with the Holy Spirit. He has thrown down a challenge to us today, because we are much more comfortable with encouraging others to be filled with the Spirit than asking them to copy us.
Could we say with confidence to the children and young people we minister among: copy how I am, because in copying me, you will come closer to Jesus? It would be a brave person who didn’t swallow or blink hard in saying that, and yet St Paul’s belief is that we should be able to.
The thing is, we run into some obstacles along the way. The first is the whole, big philosophical way we have looked at the world in our culture for two centuries. It’s all about the individual. Funny though it seems, relationships are expected to take second place. We admire people who are self-made, who get on in life without depending on others. We are encouraged to see ourselves as consumers first of all. As people who make choices that suit us. We even have economic theories that tell us we can all be self-interested because in doing so, other people will benefit.
We all go along with this, even when we have deep reservations. Most of us know that no-one is self-made. It’s a lie that is ruining the lives of too many children and young people who then think it’s all down to them, whether they get on in life or not. And it’s a very convenient lie for some who succeed in life, because they can then get people to ignore the advantages they were gifted that others weren’t: family money, good schooling, personal contacts.
Children and young people need to know it’s not all down to them. And one of the best ways of doing this is by encouraging them to imitate others, especially those who bring them closer to God. The truth is, we are all copying one another all the time. We don’t admit it, because the culture says we should all be self-made. So we suppress what is staring us in the face: that our fashion, our hobbies, our mannerisms, our sense of humour, our viewing habits, our choice of jobs, our shopping preferences, the kind of people we like, the political views we hold, are all heavily influenced by others.
And so is our character, according to St. Paul. We copy other people’s traits. When we are surrounded by kind, loving people, we are more likely to be kind and loving. When we are close to mean and spiteful people, we are more likely to be selfish and unpleasant in turn, to protect ourselves. This shows the deep value of good Christian community, and helping people to find their place in it.
It means when we copy other people’s Christian character, the Holy Spirit is deeply at work in us, to create similar virtues.
And there are some specific virtues we do well to show in front of children and young people. Chief among these are authenticity and honesty. If you’re really cool, young people might copy your coolness, but most of us know we’re on shaky ground. Either we weren’t cool when we were younger or we need to accept that what’s cool is evolving at such speed today, that we can’t possibly keep up with it. No-one wants to go to an Ariana Grande concert and see someone doing a dad dance among the backing performers. And that’s what many adults look like when they try to be cool round kids.
Far more important is to be honest and transparent. To enable young people to read us, understand what makes us tick and help them to copy the best of us. The surrounding culture is so over-packaged and insincere, so deceitful and shallow, that it’s crying out for people who are unspun and don’t project an image. That’s the key value of a minister among children and young people. Someone who can be relied on to tell the truth, and to do it with love.
Part of this is to be honest about our own doubts and failings. If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, your life will be littered with these. Any community which denies this, sweeping it under the carpet, is doing no favours to the next generation. There is still too much insincerity in church. We are often afraid of one another, scared of the truth about ourselves, and so put on masks each week to hide our true feelings. This is not the kind of church that is going to attract a new generation. Honest, authentic faith makes all the difference.
That’s no excuse for sloppiness, of course. If we become too accepting of our failings, it is a short step to doing nothing about them. Character flaws that are played out time and again in front of young people, without any hint of improvement, is demoralising and no advert for the Holy Spirit. That is a high standard, but I do not think we can duck it.
One of the biggest changes in culture has been the growth of online influencers. People who set trends and offer lifestyle tips for others to copy. Many are in their teens or early twenties, and it is a subterranean development most of us are barely aware of unless we’re hooked into YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. It is unlikely most of us would recognise someone like Holly H if we bumped into her in Bluewater, but the chances are, it would bring Bluewater to a standstill. Yet however influential such people are online, there is no substitute for the influencing power of those we regularly meet with face to face.
The life of a children’s worker and a youth worker is one of the most significant of all outside of family. Children and young people are open hearted and hungry for inspiration in their lives, ready for change in a way that many older people struggle with. And do not accept second best for the children and young people of your parish. Yours is a remarkable calling and it presents a remarkable opportunity. It is all much bigger than the Church gives credit for.
Be an imitator of me. And therefore of God.
Now that’s an influencer.
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