There is a show on Broadway titled “Dear Evan Hansen.” It tells the story of its title character as he struggles with the anxieties and confusion that sometimes accompany high school teenage years. Dip it in sympathetic sentimentality, and the end result is a musical that tugs at the heartstrings of most audiences.
Isn’t that, after all, one of the things that draws us to the theatre in the first place? The music and its lyrics are catchy and clever. The characters are believably familiar – if you know the high school teenage scene at all – and the central figure is a lonely misfit desperately seeking to belong and be accepted by his peers – by the world, really.
The underlying moral theme is not so positive; Evan Hansen creates a deceptive imaginary relationship with a popular classmate who has died in order to draw attention to himself. “Does the end justify the means” taunts the mind, as the lie turns into something “tear-jerkingly” positive, and the music is hard to resist. For the rest, go see the show. It won the 2017 Tony Award for Best Musical along with several other Tonys.
As Bishop, I often worry about the future direction of the Church in our country at large and in our Diocese in particular. Where are the young people? Why do they seem disinterested, hard to engage? I don’t think it is the Lord Jesus or his Gospel. They never lose their appeal or relevance in any time or place. As is often the case in life, regardless of age, it’s not so much “what” we say in the Church but “how” and “why.” Ah, the perennial questions that maybe – just maybe – we don’t get right when it comes to translating Jesus, his message and mission, his Church into real life, especially for young, inquiring minds and longing hearts pulled in a million other directions.
When I was young, there wasn’t a whole lot of competition for my attention: no unrelenting schedules, no excessive demands or expectations, no technologies to replace imagination, no Snapchat or Instagram, no alternatives to just being a kid. Times have certainly changed, and chances are pretty good that they won’t change back. So what do we do?
Instead of wasting time and energy and emotion lamenting what isn’t anymore, perhaps we should devote our attention to what is and what needs to be “now” as the future unfolds in the present. Yes, we still have to identify the “what” in life and in the Church, but, more than ever before, we have to get the “how” and “why” right.
It begins in the family first and foremost. It travels next to school and neighborhood. It also has to consider and include Church and its community of faith, which reminds us that the whole thing has its source in God, who knew and named us before we were born, who created us in his image, who loves us as we are, who binds us together, who never leaves us alone – young or old – on the journey, who leads us to eternity.
The fact is that life today is not simple, is not gradual or slow, is not without distractions or demands. In the midst of it all, we can feel lost, unimportant, disconnected, alone, even invisible. I believe that can certainly happen ... without faith, without hope, without God.
Back to “Dear Evan Hansen.” He sings a song that, when I heard it, struck a chord and offered a message for everyone, but especially for the young starting out in life (you can hear it on YouTube):
Have you ever felt like nobody was there
Have you ever felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere
Have you ever felt like you could disappear
Like you could fall and no one would hear
Well, let that lonely feeling wash away
Maybe there’s a reason to believe you’ll be ok
‘Cause when you don’t feel strong enough to stand
You can reach, reach out your hand
And, oh someone will come running
And I know they’ll take you home
Even when the dark comes crashing through
When you need a friend to carry you
And when you’re broken on the ground
You will be found
So let the sun come streaming in
‘Cause you’ll reach up and you’ll rise again
Lift your head and look around
You will be found.
(“You Will Be Found,” music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, book by Steven Levensen, 2016)
In God you will be found. In God you were never, will never be ... lost.