Transmit, Transform, Transgress

Adapted from Dr. Reginald Blount’s Princeton Lecture on Youth, Church, and Culture from the 2005 Forum on Youth Ministry. See full text here


Telling a Worthy Story

I believe real transformation takes place when young people are able to find their place in the Story, when they can see themselves in God’s greater Story. Young people will not be transformed by a faith they cannot connect with. Transformation will take place when they can find identity and purpose in the Story. Transformation will take place when they believe it is a Story they can become passionate about. Transformation will take place when they feel it is a Story worthy of dying for, worthy of living for.

Young people are already naturally prone to take risks. Why can’t we make room for them to take healthy risks for Christ?

Teaching to transform is about aiding young people to claim their voice and vocation, identity and purpose within the context of a community of faith. It’s about providing an environment for young people to discover they have a place and a role to play in God’s continuing and unfolding drama. It’s leading young people to discover they have a role in God’s story worthy of dying for, worthy of living for. 

Discipleship as Risky Business

As we lead young people toward living water, I believe that we must not only teach to transmit and teach to transform, but also teach to transgress. I’m defining transgression as acting out of one’s transformation. It is acting out of one’s newfound identity and purpose. It is a willingness to take risks for the faith, for Jesus.

In her book The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do, Lynn Ponton points out that “adolescents take risks as a way of developing and defining themselves…Risk-taking is the tool that adolescents use to shape their identities. Both directly and indirectly, risk-taking affects all aspects of development during this important period of life—physical, social, psychological, sexual and cultural.”¹ And I must include—most importantly—spiritual as well.

We must allow our young people to take healthy risks on behalf of their faith commitments. We must allow our young people to be transgressors. Young people are already naturally prone to take risks. Why can’t we make room for them to take healthy risks for Christ? Kenda Creasy Dean says, “[i]mmersing adolescents in the practices that participate in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ does not just turn them into nice people that help others; it shapes them into subversives and prophets, forever marked by their identification with Jesus Christ and set apart by grace for lives of holy service.”²

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Footnotes:

1. Lynn E. Ponton, The Romance ofRisk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do (New York: Basic Books, 1998), 273. (Emphasis ours.)

2. Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 254.


The Rev. Dr. Reginald Blount is an Assistant Professor of Formation, Youth, and Culture at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. A sought-after speaker and workshop leader, Dr. Blount has served as a contributor to the CEB Student Bible and Making God Real for a Next Generation: Ministry with Millennials Born from 1982 to 1999 (Discipleship Resources, 2003). He also currently serves as Pastor of Arnett Chapel A.M.E Church in Chicago.

 

The Days After Easter: What the Times Declare about Leadership, Youth, and the Church

As we prepared for the 2017 Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, we asked our leaders to write about what the word “declare” means for them, for their ministry, and for the church. Throughout history, prophetic voices have made declarations—often ones that are uncomfortable to the religious elite. We hope to bring some of that same discomfort and disruption into our lives and yours as we consider this calling together.


We have just now ended Lent, Holy Week, and Easter Sunday. We had time to abstain, reflect, and dress nicely as we ran to church and prepared picnics to celebrate that “He is Risen!” What’s next? I believe preparations for Mother’s Day celebration are coming up on the calendar, right?

This year the Forum for Youth Ministry invites us to focus on the word “declare.” In doing so, I want us to take a look and reflect on our “days after Easter.” What do the days look like? What are we declaring with our words? What are we declaring with our actions? What are we declaring with our outlook? I invite you to make this connection in relationship to our role as leaders and our desire to reach the heart of young people. One of the basic principles of leadership is to be highly aware of one’s actions and perspectives in everyday activities. All that we say and do, inevitably sends a message

We are living through times of constant and rapid change and redefinition of the basics, all of which declare the persistent need for fresh solutions. There seems to be a crisis, a disorientation, and sense of hopelessness in every sector of society ranging from the family unit, to the economy, to politics; the church, religion, and spirituality are not exempt. It is not news that a topic often addressed in our youth ministry circles, especially pertaining to mainline Anglo churches, is that young people are “leaving the church.” Experts tell us about the “spiritual but not religious,” the “nones and dones,” and the apparent menu of viable solutions in sight.

We are living through times of constant and rapid change and redefinition of the basics, all of which declare the persistent need for fresh solutions.

This is not new. Nearly 20 years ago, sociologist of religion Wuthnow pointed out that the glory days of American approach to religion and spirituality had profoundly shifted from “dwelling” (i.e., institutions, set places of worship) to “seeking” (i.e., open, transient) – and yet, our ministerial and leadership approaches remain mostly unaltered, struggling to reach the heart of youth. In light of this, what are the times declaring? What is required of us as leaders? What do young people need to see and receive?

I want us to pause and imagine the very first Easter and the “days after.” Sadness, hopelessness, disorientation, disbelief, and crisis were looming. Jesus is dead, now what? Where are all the promises he made? The hope he gave us? We see in Luke’s Gospel that early on Easter day, a few women had found out first-hand – “he has risen!” – and they were off to let the apostles and everyone else know the amazing news. Jesus’ words came true! There is hope! He is alive! The tomb is empty!

However, no one believed them, because their words, what they said, seemed like nonsense. Peter was somewhat moved by the news. He was stirred and ran to see for himself the physical evidence tied to this unbelievable story – yet, this was not enough for him. He was still in disbelief and wondering what had happened and what it all meant.

It was later that day that something extraordinary happened, which began to change the scenario and help people see the importance of what was truly taking place in the midst of what seemed to be crisis and hopelessness. Jesus himself came up, and walked along side the two who were on their way to Emmaus. Jesus reached out to them and asked for their account of the situation. As expected, the two travelers described the events taking place in those days as grim, confusing, and unexplainable. Yet, Jesus took the time to listen to them, to give them the space to express their confusion, disappointment, and disbelief. He then proceeded to remind them of what scripture said about the process of the suffering he had to endure before glory – and that he indeed had risen.

The two travelers could feel fire in their hearts as Jesus spoke directly to them. Later that evening, upon seeing Jesus’ actions, it was then that they fully recognized him! In being with them at the table, in breaking bread, in giving thanks, and in freely distributing the elements – it was then that their eyes were open and they could finally recognize Jesus because of his actions!

Those present could not deny the fire that was burning in their hearts after being in the presence of the resurrected Jesus, after such a powerful experience and encounter, after being convicted and liberated from their disbelief and hopelessness. It was essential that they disrupt their plans, and return at once to Jerusalem to tell the others! It was impossible to hold the truth back, everyone had to know what had just happened in their lives and hearts – that Jesus had risen!

In being with them at the table, in breaking bread, in giving thanks, and in freely distributing the elements – it was then that their eyes were open and they could finally recognize Jesus because of his actions!

Is it so with us today? On these “days after Easter”, are our hearts burning? In these moments after days of spiritual focus, have we seen Jesus act in our midst in such a manner that it is impossible not to recognize him? Are we so full of hope, belief, and the eagerness to tell others the news that Jesus is risen? Is our daily schedule altered by the need to reach out to others? Or are we focused on the next program to prepare, while our burning conviction takes a back seat?

Another basic principle of leadership, is having the ability to see a time of crisis not as failure, but as an opportunity to be seized! As we listen to what the times declare, we look for ways of reaching young people and see that this is the time to keep hope alive and bring about fresh steps that birth something new. This is a time to remember that all systems face challenges, and it is imperative we remember that people matter.

Today all people, are hungry for depth and connection and for leaders who seize opportunity and convey hope! In changing times, in times of crisis for the church, what are the first “days after Easter” declaring to us about where our focus ought to be? About what our leadership needs to reflect? About how our ministries need to be structured and carried on? We can, and we must, rethink our ministerial models and concerns.

Thus, in these “days after Easter,” may our leadership steps be like those of Jesus and the two travelers. Marked by our willingness to accompany young people, space to express their confusion, in-depth exposure to scripture, and a tangible example of a life lived in faith. Young people are hungry to see Jesus is risen, not only in our words, but in our actions. May our encounters with the risen Lord ignite our hearts so that neither us, nor the young people we mentor, can contain the need to let others know about him too! And, may these experiences provide us with the initial stages for our renewed steps within our leadership perspectives and practices, so that our churches and ministries can respond to what the times declare.

 


Elizabeth Tamez Méndez is founder and executive director of New Generation3, an international organization dedicated to training leaders, conducting research, and providing consulting services. She is an ordained minister with over 25 years of ministerial experience, a specialist in multicultural youth development and strategic planning, and will soon conclude her Ph.D. in Leadership. Her dissertation focuses on youth leadership development, and she is also co-authoring a book on Latin@ Youth Ministry. Formerly a high-rise architect, she is now helping build lives by serving as adjunct professor of Youth Ministry, along with exercising leadership roles throughout various non-profit organizations. When she needs to disconnect, she likes to skydive, swim with sharks, and paint murals.

 

How Prayer Works

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM.


The Effects of Prayer

After my encounter with Lord B., I was convicted. I couldn’t remember ever praying about the environment. Was that something I was supposed to do? Surely these were matters that belonged within the walls of government, or perhaps just left alone to the heavens. There was a reason we called things like earthquakes “acts of God,” right? But something about this boy’s prayer rattled me. I could feel myself getting drawn into this bigger world he was speaking of.

Within the church today there are multiple Christian truisms concerning the ways in which prayer changes the one who prays—often said with an element of surprise: I prayed that God would change my neighbor but I found that I was in fact the one who changed! We might be praying about an external situation, but often we find that we are the ones who are changed. The early twentieth century evangelist, Oswald Chambers, writes on the purpose of prayer, claiming: “To say that ‘prayer changes things’ is not as close to the truth as saying, ‘Prayer changes me and then I change things.’”

How Prayer Works

Pope Francis has a more active understanding of what prayer does. He made headlines recently with his explanation: “You pray for the hungry, then you feed them, that is how prayer works.” While Christians have a rich history of praying for God to intervene, we are continually reminded with quotes like Pope Francis on how prayer changes us. So perhaps Pope Francis and Oswald Chambers together give us the clearest understanding of prayer: when we pray, we are changed. Both through implicit internal forces at work within us, as well as explicitly chosen actions to compliment our prayers.

Pope Francis has a more active understanding of what prayer does… “You pray for the hungry, than you feed them, that is how prayer works.”

This amalgamation of Christian thought might be explained differently by various threads within the social sciences. J. L. Austin speaks of the “speech act,” whereby one’s words actually create a new reality. Herbert Simons uses “persuasion theory” to explain how we talk ourselves into what we think. My research has focused on testimony and how the words we use don’t just describe the past but actually help construct our present identities.

Can Prayer Change the World?

It’s with these understandings in mind that I began to wonder: Could praying about the environment really make a difference? Sure, I can pray that God would miraculously keep icebergs from melting, but is it possible my prayers for the environment could turn me into a more mindful steward of creation? And if so, what would it look like to invite young minds to join me in this prayerful endeavor? What would it look like for our teenagers to pray about the environment? And to pray in such a way that they are changed?

In my small world of youth ministry we pray about a lot of things. And other than occasional prayer requests that revolve around natural disasters, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a request made for the environment. We pray for safety, we pray over exams, we pray for fragile relationships, but matters concerning the stewardship of creation seem more properly relegated to Washington, D.C., than in the youth room.

I volunteer at the youth group of my local church. Every week our youth pastor collects prayer requests from the teenagers and distributes them to volunteers like myself. Over the past year alone, 1,740 prayer requests were recorded.1 The kinds of requests they made are seen below:

Type of Request Number
Prayers concerning school or work situations 713
Prayers concerning relationships (family, friends, etc.) 458
Illness/death related concerns 220
Travel/safety requests 166
Prayers to grow closer to God 85
Prayers concerning future decisions (i.e. where to go to college) 66
Praises or thanksgiving 19
Prayers directly or indirectly related to the environment 13
TOTAL 1740

Here’s a snapshot of what these prayers for the environment look like when broken down further:

Type of Environmental Request Number
Simple requests for “the weather” 5
Prayers that we would have warm weather 4
Prayers for houses that burnt down 2
Prayer for a house flood 1
Prayer concerning general flooding 1
TOTAL 13

Bringing God into the Picture

Teenagers hear about environmental issues in various educational settings, but how might we integrate their knowledge with a prayerful spirit? How might knowledge prompt both prayers and actions? Educational insights do not necessarily morph their way into our prayers, and we now know from experience that scare tactics concerning California disappearing or extinct polar bears are not effective. In fact, many of these tactics simply backfire.

Teenagers hear about environmental issues in various educational settings, but how might we integrate their knowledge with a prayerful spirit? How might knowledge prompt both prayers and actions?

A 2014 article from The New York Times explains, “More than a decade’s worth of research suggests that fear-based appeals about climate change inspire denial, fatalism and polarization.” This is particularly true among religious Americans. “Messages focused on extreme weather events,” the Times explains, “made many Americans more likely to view climate change as an act of God—something to be weathered, not prevented” (which one might argue is a throw-back to the fatalism tied up with linking the Bubonic Plague as an act of God—something to be weathered, not prevented).

Additionally, it’s one thing to be aware of environmental concerns, it’s another thing to act upon those concerns. The New York Times story continues:

“Although shocking, catastrophic, and large-scale representations of the impacts of climate change may well act as an initial hook for people’s attention and concern,” the researchers wrote, “they clearly do not motivate a sense of personal engagement with the issue and indeed may act to trigger barriers to engagement such as denial.”2

What if we could speak of the environment in such a way that it prompts mindful prayer and responsible action? What might it look like to cultivate a practice of prayer and the environment?

Prayer and Stories

My teenagers pray about the things they care about. These prayer requests are birthed within and passed on in narrative form. A story arrests our attention and creeps into our prayers. My hunch is that all of the prayer requests shared have a story attached.

Pray for my grandma. Ever since my grandpa died she hasn’t wanted to eat.

I’ve got a big test coming up and there’s no way I can study everything.

Stories help us identify what we care about and why it matters. We are formed (or malformed) by narratives. It’s stories like “Cinderella” or “Snow White” that paint for us a mental image of the cruelty of stepmothers.3 This leads me to the question: What if we could turn science into a story?

Sharing Stories

I care about the polluted soil in the food desert of Camden, New Jersey. However, I pray about the polluted soil in Camden, New Jersey, when I hear the 17-year-old boy explain how his family can’t even grow vegetables in their own backyard. And I become downright incensed when I hear the story of the large, million-dollar corporations responsible for the hazardous toxins, which have since relocated, leaving poisoned soil in their wakes.

I care about the inefficient energy zones within my hometown. However, I pray and I act when I hear the stories of the people within these houses. In May 2011, The Vectren Foundation partnered with my city to identify the least energy efficient parts of the city. Ultimately, they focused their attention on a part of the city stretching out across roughly 30 blocks and geographically shaped like a giant “7”.

I can comprehend the problem of inefficient energy. But my attitude towards the problem changes when I hear the stories of the 844 children who are living within “The Magnificent Se7en” and have holes in their roof so large they can see the sky without stepping outside.

Stories Transform Prayer into Action

When we take a storied approach to our environment, we organically find ourselves in a richer landscape that goes beyond the physical terrain of the land.

I watched as a whole church full of congregants went from consumers of educational information to advocates for making our town better by insulating 100 homes within the region designated by Vectren. Stories change how we pray. Stories change how we act.

When we story our land we care for the environment differently. We also care for our neighbors differently. When we take a storied approach to our environment, we organically find ourselves in a richer landscape that goes beyond the physical terrain of the land. We also find ourselves bumping into complex issues of race, economics, religion, and gender.4

When we expose our youth to the stories embedded within our land, we are implicitly, and perhaps explicitly, calling them to be both prayerfully present to what is occurring as well as to become involved in attempting to answer those prayers. Because first we pray about our carbon footprint, and then we actively work to reduce that footprint. This is how prayer works.

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Footnotes:

1. Thank you to Pastor Matt Beck for compiling these requests, and to Pastor Anderson Kursonis for cataloguing them as well as offering fantastic suggestions and assisting me in the writing process.

2. Originally published in Saffron O’Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole, “‘Fear Won’t Do It’: Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations” Science Communication, March 2009, 30:355–379, first published on January 7, 2009. Quoted in The New York Times:

What works, say environmental pollsters and researchers, is focusing on popular solutions. Climate advocates often do this, arguing that solar and wind can reduce emissions while strengthening the economy.

One recent study, published by Yale Law School’s Cultural Cognition Project, found that conservatives become less skeptical about global warming if they first read articles suggesting nuclear energy or geoengineering as solutions. Another study, in the journal Nature Climate Change in 2012, concluded that “communication should focus on how mitigation efforts can promote a better society” rather than “on the reality of climate change and averting its risks.”

A version of this op-ed appears in print on April 9, 2014, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: “Global Warming Scare Tactics.” http://cstpr.colorado.edu/students/envs_4800/oneill_2009.pdf, Accessed March 1, 2017.

3. Alisdair McIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, third edition. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

4. For more, see Jennings’ work on linking landscape and race. Willie James Jennings. Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

 


Amanda Drury (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) has been in youth ministry for about fifteen years. She serves as Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Indiana Wesleyan University where she lives with her husband and three children. She is the author of Saying is Believing: The Necessity of Testimony in Adolescent Spiritual Formation, and is currently serving as director of Examen, a summer theological institute for high school students, and The Brain Kitchen, a non-profit organization in Marion, Indiana serving children with after-school mentoring and cooking classes in a trauma-informed environment.

Is it Any Wonder Young People are Confused About Grace?

“It doesn’t matter where you have been…,” the speaker said. “It doesn’t matter what you have done.” On he went. “God loves you, right where you are, and for who you are!”

It was cry night at camp, and I was hooked by a modern retelling of the Prodigal Son. I wanted to be immersed in the grace being advertised that night. No more masks. No more pretending to be someone I wasn’t. No more being ashamed to come to God for fear of what I had or might have done. I could simply be me.

Want to Be Christian?

Then I went home.

To waiting expectations. Adults in the congregation wanted to hear testimonies of how God moved at camp. I was quickly made aware a decision made for God came with new expectations:

– Read the bible, and oh yeah, read it every day.
– Pray daily, even better if you can do it without ceasing whatever that might mean.
– Attend church weekly.
– Listen predominantly, if not only, to Christian music.
– Avoid parties because parties can “only” have drugs and alcohol.
– No R-rated movies.

Want to be a Christian? This was it. I was handed a blueprint of expectations by which I was to achieve discipleship. For a mature disciple is one who can, as quoted from the Bible, “go, and sin no more!”

Gone was the grace I had experienced at camp. Gone was the God who met me where I was in life. God had been replaced by one of those advertisers who acts innocent as he or she asks, “What’s the matter? You didn’t read the fine print?”

Grace invites me to see myself as I truly am, with all my imperfections.

How was I to add all these expectations to an already overcrowded schedule of school, homework, soccer practices, and other activities they expect to see on a college scholarship application? It didn’t take long to come off the mountain from camp, to question whether the experience was real or all imagined in my head.

Go and Sin No More?

In over fifteen years of youth ministry, I know my experience isn’t unique. I have seen many young people go through the same experience. They encounter this God who, in the midst of grace, encounters them right where they are. And then they lose sight of God in the midst of the expectations of grace.

Is it any wonder young people are often confused by what we mean by grace?

The phrase “go and sin no more” comes from Jesus’ face-off with the religious leaders in the gospel of John. Jesus writes in the dirt as they bring in a woman who was “caught in act of adultery.” The leaders think they have Jesus cornered. Jesus is slow to respond. Perhaps he wants to buy some time to think about his response. Maybe he stalled for dramatic effect. Either way, when Jesus responds, he stuns the crowd. One-by-one they drop their rocks and leave. The story closes with Jesus telling the woman that he will not condemn her either. Or maybe he does.

I am convinced this popular refrain of “go, and sin no more” is one of the most narrowly interpreted passages in all of Scripture. In the church tradition I grew up in, this was seen as the sign of a mature Christian. To walk with God and sin no more. This was the apex of Christian discipleship. No more cursing. No more lewd thoughts. No more selfishness. No more sin.

The problem with this interpretation of sin and the idea that grace sets us free to sin no more is it leaves the woman standing at the end of the story condemned—not by the religious leaders—but by Jesus.

Still don’t buy it?

Rewind and think about this unique story found only in the gospel of John—a story not even found in the earliest manuscripts of John.

Before Jesus told this woman to go and sin no more. Before Jesus and this woman were left alone in the middle of the street. They were surrounded by a group of people who were prepared to stone this woman. That is, until Jesus reminded them of their hypocrisy. There wasn’t one person in the crowd who hadn’t sinned—rephrase: there is not one person in the crowd who won’t sin.

So if Jesus knows this, and the crowd knows this, then there has to be more to what Jesus means at the end of the story when he tells this woman to go and sin no more. Otherwise, this story doesn’t end in grace and redemption. It ends with Jesus casting the stone himself.

So what does Jesus mean when he tells her to go and sin no more?

Embracing Grace

Theologian Rowan Williams offers an understanding of sin which perhaps gets us closer to what Jesus intended at the end of this story. William writes, “To say alleluia for sinners is to say alleluia for the beginnings of honesty.” As Williams goes on to describe, sin isn’t limited to being disobedient or being immoral, it’s better understood as going against our nature—the nature God created. So in effect, with this larger understanding of sin, Jesus isn’t telling the woman to go and never make another mistake. Jesus is inviting her to embrace grace, to embrace herself, to see the value of who she is—fractured self and all.

After one walks into the front doors of a church, it only takes about five minutes to hear grace defined as an underserved gift. I can’t help but wonder if we like to put that tagline on it because we are uncomfortable with what grace’s invitation is really about. Because when I think about what grace really means, it makes me uncomfortable, and really, I want to push it away.

Grace invites me to see myself as I truly am, with all my imperfections. It’s hard in our culture to embrace grace because it means admitting I am less than perfect. I might not be the success story everyone idolizes. Or the success story which looks good on a college application.

This is grace, it takes the blinders off and encourages me to see the world as it really is and to see myself as I really am—faults and all.

This is the invitation Jesus offered this woman. Jesus was inviting her to see herself as he saw her—a woman of value who didn’t need to sell herself short or let her life’s story be defined by a crowd. A crowd full of imperfect people who were probably thankful grace was not bringing their imperfections into the spotlight that day.

To help flesh this out a little more, I close with a quote from one of my favorite authors— who I am convinced is secretly a theologian—Brené Brown. She writes, “Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.” In churches, too often grace falls into the former category and never gets to the latter.

Ministries and our faith practices are designed to help young people fit in. To be a part of the Church. To be a Christian, you have to read the Bible, pray daily, and sin no more. This is how the Church knows grace has impacted your life.

What if we did the opposite?

Rather than advertise grace as a way to fit in, what if we created ministries that invited young people to see how grace shows them who they are?


 Rev. Seth M. Vopat is an ordained member of the clergy, writer, and 15-year youth ministry veteran who currently serves in the Kansas City area. He has an M.Div. from Central Baptist Theological Seminary and a Certificate in Youth and Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary. His Twitter feed is @svopat.

Gratefulness as Spiritual Practice

How can gratefulness be a healing spiritual practice? As pastors and leaders working with youth, how can we teach them to use gratefulness as a healing spiritual resource? As our youth experience difficulty, how can gratitude be a source of strength? While I do not have a perfect answer that will teach each youth to live a life of gratitude, I can share my personal experience of receiving healing through gratefulness.

At the age of nine I was diagnosed with an eye disease. A few years later as a middle school student, I lost most of sight. I could not read the print on the board in classes and I could no longer read my textbooks. In church I could not read the bulletin and in Sunday School I could no longer follow along with the printed material. Everything was changing. I responded with the normal stages of grief including denial, anger, and sadness. I was overwhelmed with depression and anxiety.

While I am not grateful for the horrible transition of becoming blind, I am grateful for the loving power of God that surrounded me in such a difficult time. I am grateful for the loving presence of God that is always and everywhere. I am grateful for the people who supported me during those traumatic days and who continue to support me each day.

My prayer to God was, “I cannot. I cannot. I cannot.” I would cry, scream, and silently think, “God, I cannot.” As a grieving teenager who was facing the tragic reality that I was becoming blind, it was healthy and normal for me to feel those emotions. It was also healthy for me to learn healing spiritual practices so that I could move through the stages of grief and continue living a life of meaning and purpose.

Grateful for the Love of God

One of the spiritual practices that was most healing for me was the practice of gratitude. In fact, in my book, Harnessing Courage, I focus half of the book on gratitude as a source of empowerment when overcoming adversity. Was I grateful for becoming blind? Am I now thankful to be a person with a disability? Absolutely not! So why did I write about gratitude? Why do I believe in the spiritual practice of gratefulness?

While I am not grateful for the horrible transition of becoming blind, I am grateful for the loving power of God that surrounded me in such a difficult time. I am grateful for the loving presence of God that is always and everywhere. I am grateful for the people who supported me during those traumatic days and who continue to support me each day. So, grateful for the adversity? No! Grateful for the love of God that flowed through each person and event? Yes!

Learning the spiritual practice of gratefulness did not come easily or naturally. It was a slow process of learning to be thankful for God’s power and love. Learning to be grateful did not magically take all my problems away. Life was still hard and difficult. In the midst of adjusting to my situation, gratefulness empowered me to focus on what I had rather than focusing on the negative thoughts.

So what practices helped me form the spiritual discipline of gratefulness? What practices can you teach your youth to use as they live a life of gratitude regardless of the situation they face?

Grateful for the Presence of God

One practice is to write down the moments that you are thankful for as you go through your day. Take a few minutes each night to stop and reflect on the people and situations you are thankful for during that day.

Some helpful questions are:

-Where did I experience the unconditional love of God?
-Where did I notice the presence of God today?
-Where was God present even in the midst of hard moments?

Exploring these questions helps us to become aware of the grateful moments in our lives. Some days the list will be long and easy. Then other days the list will be short and difficult. The purpose is not to have a perfectly long list. Rather the goal is to be thankful for the loving presence of God.

Grateful for the Actions of Others

Another powerful practice is to say thank you to others. Now, it seems obvious to thank people when they do something helpful. But, think about how many times we do not stop to say, “Thank you.” We are too busy or too hurried to thank others. The practice of saying thank you helps us to form a healing habit of appreciation. To get in the mindset of saying thank you, we can start by having the goal of thanking others three times a day. We can thank someone who has encouraged us, helped us, supported us, or empowered us. Once we are mindfully saying thank you to three people, we can let go of the number of times and live each day striving to genuinely show appreciation.

Writing down the thankful moments and expressing our gratitude to other people are two powerful practices. Forming the spiritual practice of gratitude is an amazing source of strength that we can offer to our youth. As pastors and leaders may we each seek to empower and support our youth through the spiritual practice of gratitude.

 


Laura BrattonRev. Laura Bratton graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 2010. She is a United Methodist pastor in South Carolina and founder of Ubi Global LLC. She is the author of Harnessing Courage. Visit Laura’s website at www.ubiglobal.org.

Sitting with It: The “Spiritual Discipline of Frustration”

Youth ministry can involve both the best of times… and the worst of times. There are plenty of days when I genuinely love being a youth leader—days free of frustration, when I have a conversation with a teenager who is genuinely seeking to know God better, when we have really good conversations during a mid-week study, or when young people connect with God in worship. These are the days when the “success” of my role as a youth leader is visible, and easily quantifiable.

On the other hand, there are days when I have FYLS (Frustrated Youth Leader Syndrome… it’s not a thing, but it should be.) These are the days when preaching goes down like a lead balloon, conversations with teenagers feel like talking to a brick wall that grunts, and just about everything that seems to go wrong does.

The False Validation of Youth Ministry

On the first type of day, I can handle the adversity and challenges of youth work. An antagonistic attitude, or a snide remark, rolls off my back. On the other kind of day, I can return home from an event in tears, immeasurably frustrated at how hard/difficult/challenging/impossible youth ministry seems to be. However, I know that this scenario is not unique, and that many of us who are in youth ministry are familiar with the swing of emotions that working with young people can provoke in us personally.

The working definition of a “spiritual discipline” is that it is a practice or a habit which we enter into intentionally, with the goal of growing in spiritual maturity and openness towards God… If our instinct is to “do something” with unbearable feelings, then perhaps it is almost an act of spiritual warfare to cease activity, and to instead wait upon God’s presence in the midst of our inner turmoil.

Expanding upon this further, Henri Nouwen, a well-loved contemplative writer of the twentieth century, remarks upon “how horrendously secular our ministerial lives tend to be.”1 The answer to why this is so is quite simple: our identity, our sense of value, is at stake. Far too often our success as leaders is measured by a rubric of success that has nothing to do with the radical way of life that Jesus calls us to in the Gospels, and far more to do with a Christianity that has been insidiously influenced by the myth of progress. We look for validation in numbers and statistics, rather than the less definable qualities of growth and discipleship.

At its best, youth ministry allows us to celebrate the goodness and faithfulness of God as we journey with teenagers deeper into discipleship. At its worst, youth ministry leadership can provoke all kinds of feelings of inadequacy, ineffectiveness, failure, and frustration.

Being Frustrated by Frustration

The way in which this sense of frustration manifests is different for everyone, and there is a whole realm of psychology and theology here which lies beyond the scope of a single article. For the sake of brevity, it is helpful to identify that each human has particular “triggers” that evoke feelings that we find uncomfortable or unbearable. We have a fight or flight response; fleeing from the feelings by ignoring them, or fighting the feelings by trying to fix the problem. But what instead of fight or flight, we chose to sit with the frustration? What if instead of wearing ourselves out trying to fix the perceived problem, or looking for the quickest way out, we embraced the pain and frustration and confusion and we actively looked for the ways in which God wants to meet us in the middle of these feelings which we prefer to reject? What if our frustration was viewed as a springboard for growth, rather than being a negative emotion?

I’d like to suggest that there is immense value in choosing this third way; embracing and engaging with the sense of frustration that is provoked in us, rather than fleeing or fighting. For many of us this is the last thing we want to do, because when we stop running, we become aware of who we truly are. We find that all our coping mechanisms are exposed—whether our position is a source of self-edification and justifying our value, whether we feel good about ourselves because we have responsibility in leadership, or whether we don’t deal with our own brokenness because we’re so busy helping others. I’m nicknaming this decision the “spiritual discipline of frustration.”

Re-Envisioning Frustration

The working definition of a “spiritual discipline” is that it is a practice or a habit which we enter into intentionally, with the goal of growing in spiritual maturity and openness towards God. Usually this list includes activities like prayer, fasting, meditation, worship, solitude, guidance, and celebration… but while I’m applying the term creatively here, I think that the idea is the same. If our instinct is to “do something” with unbearable feelings, then perhaps it is almost an act of spiritual warfare to cease activity, and to instead wait upon God’s presence in the midst of our inner turmoil.

I’m aware that this can sound rather airy-fairy, when it’s actually a really gritty process of genuine discipleship. To avoid this being ungrounded, I’d like to highlight some of the practical realities which this process has involved for me.

1) Attentive Stillness

Sitting and waiting does not mean inactivity; it means attentive stillness. Life is busy—even more so for those who seek to fit youth work around a full-time job or study—and the pace rarely lets up. In order to meet with God in the middle of our frustration, we need to hew out a space in which to do so. The choice of vocabulary here is intentional—it may require some serious effort to set aside time.

2) Discovering Our True Selves

We need solitude. I love what Nouwen observes when he writes that “solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of our false self.”2 This solitude has nothing to do with justifying the fact that we just need some space, but is rather an intentional turning away from the sources of external validation which prop us up and keep us going.

In the place of solitude, where there is nothing to distract us from just how frustrated and bankrupt we really are, we learn to hear the word of God that teaches us about our true selves. This isn’t to suggest that we should all move to the desert and become hermits (although, a day in the wilderness can be quite restorative)! Instead, this mirrors the process of “sitting with” our frustration; of holding it before the Lord in the place of silence, solitude, and prayer, and allowing God to work in us as the ugliness of our lives is exposed. In the desert we gain a painful clarity on what our frustration is really masking—our sense of inadequacy, our need for affirmation, our desperation to be genuinely welcomed in.

3) Being Set Free in Community

Finally, we need community who will embrace us as we seek to hear the voice of God and to walk out a way of being that is more faithful to who God says we are. In returning to our communities, we become able to forge new patterns and habits of healthy affirmation—no longer bound by the defeat and fear of our frustration, we become able to engage the process of truth-telling with others.

This is what Richard Foster calls the discipline of guidance (see his chapter of the same name in A Celebration of Discipline), where we learn to hear God speaking to us together, and how to receive what we actually need in a safe way within our community. We are thus freed from the fear that we’re not good enough, and the terror that people might discover who we really are, and the guilt of false responsibility for the spiritual growth of those who we lead, or how big our group is. The transformation that takes place is one of freedom; we are set free to be first and foremost a daughter or a son of God, rather than primarily identifying ourselves by our role or our contribution.

Frustration as Gift

Frustration isn’t fun—it can feel like the weight of the world is upon our shoulders, and we have no way to fix it. However, God is still at work in our lives and continues to hold each of us as we undertake the ministry to which we have been called by the Holy Spirit. May we become youth workers—and disciples—who are comfortable sitting with this frustration, and who are able to embrace the process of growth that this “spiritual discipline of frustration” invites us into. May frustration help us to depend continually on the One who calls us, and loves us and our young people more than we could ever imagine.

—–

Footnotes:

1. Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), 22.
2. Ibid., 25.

 


DugdaleKate Dugdale lives in Nelson, New Zealand, where she is finishing off a PhD through the University of Otago. She’s been involved in youth work and other forms of ministry for over a decade, which makes her feel like she is getting old! Kate is committed to doing theology in a way that serves the Church, and hopes to be involved in some form of discipleship, prayer and missions. Her favourite present from her recent birthday was a pink stovetop espresso maker.

Unearthed Beauty from Brokenness: An Amnesia Project

On a cold winter night few years ago, I found myself in a warm living room in the hills of Texas waiting for pastor, author, and Christian imagineer Eugene Peterson to walk in. He quietly came in and moved toward his seat on a couch among the small group of pastors and church leaders.

As he stood to speak, I leaned forward for dear life:
Leaning.
Hoping.
Wanting information to inspire any reason to continue vocational ministry as I knew it. I was exhausted by what I was doing, where I was doing it, and with whom. I had even forgotten why I should continue.

He smiled and thanked us for being there and without hesitation said,
“When I read a poem I don’t have more information; I have a new experience.

I didn’t need more information about what I was doing, I needed a new experience with “why…” that I could draw from and be moved by when I felt thirsty or stuck.

I was so positively disrupted by his words that I stopped listening to the great Eugene Peterson (still embarrassed about that) and started writing a poem. A four-word poem that would become the prose for my work’s purpose.

Unearthed beauty from brokenness.

I didn’t need more information about what I was doing, I needed a new experience with “why.” His words shifted my unhappy ending into a longing for a pure beginning. A verb, noun, preposition, and another noun became the poetic well and wheel that I could draw from and be moved by when I felt thirsty or stuck.

This “Four-Word Why Poem” isn’t the source of my energy when I am low. My source is God, but it is a mental and emotional cue to seek the source. It’s the poem I tell myself throughout the day to discover the moral of my story and to enliven the morale of my career as a Curator of Human Potential.

Still, sometimes the trauma of everyday challenges gives me a personal amnesia. The amnesia is paralyzing until I remember the passion in the poetry of my “Four-Word Why Poem.” Without it, I tell the worst stories to myself about myself and everyone around me.

Over the years, I have learned that every interrogative is an artery that branches out of the heart of our work in the world, the “Why!”

When we are more focused on informing the what, the who, the how, the where, and the when, those arteries get clogged up and we soon suffer from a heart attack that makes us lose heart for the work we are doing.

From the “why” we can better inform the what, who, and how of life and ministry.

That same motivation in prose can be both the wrecking ball and the balm that simultaneously breaks down and heals the flow of ideas and imaginations.

What is your “Four-Word Why Poem?” What verb, noun, preposition, and noun represent the poetry of your “why?” Be positively disruptive and write it down now! Awaken from your own amnesia through this project of the soul. It could turn problems into possibilities, and junk into jazz, giving a static soul a new rhythm for life.

 


Marlon Hall

Marlon Hall is a curator of human potential who has worked to curate multiple social innovations in the cities of Houston, TX, Detroit, MI, and Nairobi, Kenya. Trained in Anthropology, he has gone from irritation to intrigue to innovation to curate projects like The Eat Gallery (the only restaurant / culinary art gallery in the world that incubated seven culinary artists and restaurants) to Folklore Films (a film project commissioned by the mayor of the city of Houston to tell better stories to Houston about Houston, one folkloric character at a time).

Chocolate Dipped Pretzels—Finding Meaning and Pleasure in Epiphany

Christmas is over, but it’s still fun to think about gifts. After all, gifts didn’t make it under Jesus’ manger until the Magi showed up with their sparkly chests to mark the first Epiphany. Jesus made out okay. The Magi, according to Matthew, showed up with gold fit for a king, frankincense fit for God, and myrrh anticipating the death that would bring new life.

A nice haul for Jesus, but my wish list looks different. Yes, the gold could boost my daughter’s college fund, but the frankincense would upset my neighbors and I would become suspect with too much myrrh (a resin historically used for embalming the dead). I would rather choose a few of my favorite things: craft beer, a hiking shirt, and a dozen chocolate-dipped M&M-covered pretzels. It’s still fun to think about gifts.

A Christian Century article, “The giver and the gift,” caught my attention a few weeks ago. It was written by Miroslav Volf, a Croatian Protestant theologian now teaching at Yale Divinity School. While his references to “steamy sex” have a way of grabbing the reader’s attention, the depth of the article is found in a discussion about pleasure, meaning and gifts.

Volf begins the article powerfully: “In choosing between meaning and pleasure we always make the wrong choice.” His thesis is that we need not make a choice at all: “The unity of meaning and plea­sure, which we experience as joy, is given with the God who is Love.”

Volf writes that pleasure is derived from two things. First, it’s found in the way we sense things—for example, in the color of the M&Ms, the crunch of the pretzel, the taste of salt folded into sweet. But we also derive pleasure from the social relations inherent in things.

But we also derive pleasure from the social relations inherent in things.

The dipped pretzel is all the more pleasurable knowing the maker of the pretzel, my spouse. She not only made them but also lovingly stowed a bag of them in the back of the freezer, thus eluding the hordes of hedonistic family and friends who would have devoured them over the holidays. I delighted in the last pretzel not only because it tasted good, but also because of the kindness and love with which it was made.

Pleasure is more than just savory and sweet; it is sacramental. Volf argues that we enjoy things most when we experience them like sacraments, as “carriers of the presence of another.” My tradition speaks of God’s presence in, with and under the gifts of bread, wine or water. Meaning and pleasure blend together in the unity of the giver and the gift.

Meaning and pleasure blend together in the unity of the giver and the gift.

I hope to discover that unity in this season of Epiphany.

Perhaps a few of you committed to a New Year’s resolution. I try to keep mine as specific as possible because commitments like, “Be nicer,” or “Watch fewer YouTube videos” are either immeasurable or easily forgotten. Perhaps a smaller commitment will do for us and our ministry? Enter the season of Epiphany. The season of gifts.

The virtue of liturgical seasons is that they come in bite-sized chunks. Four Sundays in Advent. 12 days of Christmas. 40 days of Lent. Five weeks of Epiphany, which begins today. I find that life is best taken in bite-sized chunks as well. Think of diets, exercise plans, academic calendars, work projects… I see an opportunity to mash-up the five weeks of Epiphany before us with a bite of life.

In this season of Epiphany I intend to write each day on some gift that has come my way and then try to imagine my relation to the giver. Volf writes: “To think of a gift, you must, of course, think of a giver.” A dipped pretzel given by a spouse. A pint glass from an old friend. A maple tree given by the creator of a beautiful and vulnerable creation. This last type of gift and giver is what I intend to reflect on most. As Volf wrote:

We have a giver (God), a recipient (you), and a gift (the world). A gift is not the object given as such. Little trinkets on the shelves of gift stores are not gifts; they become gifts when somebody gives them to somebody else. In other words, gifts are relations. If the world is a gift, then all things to which you relate—and many to which you don’t—are also God’s relation to you.

There are five weeks in this season. It’s going to be a busy one for me, recruiting leaders for spring small groups, planning midweek lent services, working on a major staff transition at my church… but as I reflect on Epiphany and pleasure and meaning, I see a bite-sized opportunity to live more fully, gratefully, and deeply.

Christmas is over but that means Epiphany has just begun. When choosing between meaning and pleasure, will you get it right? As you live and minister, will you discover the unity of the two? I hope to find such unity in reflecting on gifts. Even more, in reflecting on the giver. What an Epiphany this will be.

 

trusertRev. Thomas Rusert is the Associate Pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. He is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and St. Olaf College.

Prayer As A Discipline

Prayer As A Discipline

Prayer As A Struggle

This is a really difficult post for me to write. For the sake of full disclosure, I must admit that I have had a very up and down relationship with prayer throughout my life. When I was young and fairly new to my faith, prayer came easy, I found myself praying all the time. But since then, and particularly since I have been in full time ministry, prayer is something with which I struggle.

Prayer As A Profession

I think there are a few reasons that I struggle. First of all, I pray all the time, “professionally”. I lead prayer in youth group, at bible studies, during Sunday school, at session meetings, during youth leader planning events, at youth committee meetings, in hospital rooms, and at any random event that we have here at the church. Also, as a parent I pray with my children at meals and each night before they go to bed. These kinds of praying are easy for me, as they are helping others to connect with God, which is something about which I am very passionate.

Prayer As A Person

When we talk about personal prayer, however, this is where the struggle begins. I know the benefits of regular prayer, but I struggle to make the time, find the energy, and sustain the commitment to this time with God. I wonder how many of you feel the same way. And I wonder how many of you, like me, beat yourself up about this reality. I am a pastor; I am supposed to be “good” at praying. But sometimes, I just plain stink at it.

Prayer As A Practice

But, I have found some ways to help me in this struggle to maintain the discipline of prayer which I truly believe to be an essential part of our Christian walk.

  1. I try to connect prayer to physical things. This is something I have learned from doing prayer stations with my youth group. I find that when I have something in my hands, something to help me focus, prayer comes a little easier. Sometimes this could be something unrelated to what I am praying about, but just something to hold in my hands that keeps my mind focused. Other times, this can be something directly related to my prayers: pictures of the people I am praying for, items that remind me of the struggles in the world, or a memento from a time when I have felt particularly close to God.
  2. I try to think of prayer as less of an appointment I have to make with God (as my calendar is already chocked full of appointments) and rather a way of life. I think this is in line with Paul’s call in 1 Thessalonians 5 to “pray without ceasing”. When we move away from thinking of prayer as simply another appointment, we can start looking for ways and reasons to pray in all the activities of our lives. When we are shopping for food, we can be praying for those who are hungry. When we are playing with our children, we can be praying for those who are parentless. When we are sitting at our desk, we can pray for those who are without work. Life is full of opportunities to pray for others.
  3. I try to work at not beating myself up about my struggles with prayer. Whenever I start to get down on myself I find that my prayer life gets even worse. If prayer is an opportunity for us to connect with God, the source of all grace, then we ought to have a little grace with ourselves.

Prayer As Purpose

Ultimately prayer is about maintaining our relationship with God. It is about keeping the lines of communication open between yourself and the one who made all that was, is, and ever will be. It truly is an amazing privilege that God has provided us with this way of connecting. Let’s make a commitment together to make prayer, personal prayer as opposed to “professional prayer,” a deeper part of our everyday life. I am confident that when we do, God will make it worth our while.

 

ToddTracyTodd Tracy – Associate Pastor for Youth & Their Families
Liberty Presbyterian Church, Delaware OH

For over ten years, Todd has been engaged in youth and young adult ministry. He enjoys watching sports of all kinds, playing games, hanging out with his family and friends, cooking on the grill, and exploring nature.

Silence: Self-examination in the Presence of God:

Silence: Self-examination in the Presence of God:

Theologian Howard Thurman writes,

“There is very great virtue in the cultivation of silence, and strength to be found in using it as a door to God. Such a door opens within. When I have quieted down, I must spend some time in self-examination in the presence of God.”

The trouble with silence is that many people feel the need to fill the void of silence with unnecessary conversation, with social media, with television, with music, with or with noise of some form or fashion. Silence can be perplexing and can make one feel uncomfortable and unaccompanied, that’s why homes are filled with unattended TV’s that have been left on when nobody is watching, simply for cacophonic background noise. Without noisy interruptions, we can feel bombarded by unpleasant thoughts and emotions.  All the ways we’re unhappy about ourselves and our choices come raging back into our awareness when there’s space for them to arise—in silence. It’s really no surprise, then, that our culture is contentious and intimidated by silence. However, despite cultural uneasiness with silence, the ability to be with silence is critical to getting to core of who we are—self-examination in the presence of God!

As we develop in this discipline of silence and deepen our ability to interlude in the presence of God, we become aware of our faults, weaknesses, doors closed, and missed opportunities. Yet, this becomes the occasion to “ask, seek, and knock,” and to await heavenly assistance to provide spiritual nourishment. Silence calms our soul, relaxes our inhibitions, and ushers us into the presence of God.

Silence calms our soul:

“Don’t worry. Be happy” was a popular song in late 80’s and though the song was catchy; I found out it was not that easy to mimic. I, like many, used to be plagued with anxiety, worry, and daily stress. My mind wouldn’t let me rest. Why did I make this decision? …What will they think about me? …How am I going to pay my bills? …What if I am not good enough? Literally, my mind, body, and soul were in constant duress. Later, I realized I was harming myself and I turned to God to calm my anxiety and rejuvenate my soul. It is in these moments that we must learn how to trust God to calm our anxious minds.

Silence relaxes our inhibitions:

In such a moment, we are free from our vulnerabilities, tensions, embarrassments; yet, it allows us to re-engineer our personalities. When the world has taken a toll on our soul (as it often does), and we are dried up like a “raisin in the sun”, silence provides a way for the Son to restore us, give us bursts of energy, and make us more fruitful. Out of this uneasiness, everything is possible, because instead of fear, shame and guilt, you experience the fullness of spiritual energy without tension. The more relaxed we become in the presence of God, the fresher we feel, full of potential for creativity and innate joy.

Silence ushers us into the presence of God:

In the presence of God, His majestic radiance unpacks so much that we have taken for granted. Being in His presence, we become exposed to His scrutiny and our sins and pride are laid bare in front of Him. Yes, self-examination allows us to seek forgiveness, to forgive, and to repent. His presence bathes us so that we can immerge more humble and aware of the fallacies of life. The Psalmist puts it best when he says,

“You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”—Psalm 16:11

Silence is not our antagonist but a virtue. Our ability to practice silence in the presence of God may confirm that we are intensely interested in what God is doing within and around us. Unplug from social media, turn off the TV, mute the music, and create an atmosphere of silence—you soul will thank you later!

 

 

Nathaniel Brooks

Nathaniel Brooks

Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Brooks is currently the Youth & Young Adult Pastor at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in Herndon, VA and is a 2014 graduate of the Certificate in Youth & Theology program from the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is a sought after ministry practitioner with a passion for youth ministry, urban ministry, race, theology, and leadership.