While the Church moves into Advent this year, many of us are preparing our evergreen wreaths and buying the new taper candles we will light during worship to celebrate hope, peace, love, and joy. Many of us are searching for accompanying liturgies (or writing our own) and asking selected families in our congregations to help us lead this portion of these upcoming services. Many of us have been preparing our children to perform in Christmas pageants. Many of our musicians and choirs have been perfecting the nuances of their Advent anthems and hymns. Many of us—maybe all of us—have been staring at beloved passages from the gospels that proclaim the good news of the coming of the Lord. And many of us—maybe all of us—have been staring at the blinking cursors and the blank pages and have been thought-less, word-less, speech-less.
Wrestling With Reality
For months, maybe years, maybe a timeless unit of measurement, we have been watching and experiencing and participating in a culture that now feels like it’s coming apart at the seams. Sure, the writer of Ecclesiastes was on to something when he observed, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Yet, a quick Google News search of the word “unprecedented” provides a more complex narrative to describe our current cultural moment.
For the many of us who minister to young people, we’ve also sensed an added dimension to this moment in our history, namely, that the cultural rhetoric, fear, and competing narratives have seeped into their lives and discourse in a way that is in danger of being normalized.
Many people are angry. Many people are afraid. Many people are in pain or fed up or lashing out. Many people have as many different perspectives as they have the capacity to feel and articulate. There is so much noise right now, so many words being shouted from so many different directions, and so few ears actually listening to any of it.
Against this background, many of us in the Church don’t know what to say or where to say it. But we are hanging greens and tying ribbons and watching the clock continue ticking toward Advent. For weeks now, maybe months, many of us have been dancing delicately with the people in our care as we listen to their words, see the expressions on their faces, and field the barrage of questions riddled with theological minefields:
“Yes, Jesus did tell his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them…”
“Yes, Paul did write to the Romans that they should be subject to governing authorities…”
“Yes, he did also command them to pay their taxes…”
“Yes, showing hospitality to strangers is a theme woven again and again into Scripture…”
The Power of Rhetoric
For the many of us who minister to young people, we’ve also sensed an added dimension to this moment in our history, namely, that the cultural rhetoric, fear, and competing narratives have seeped into their lives and discourse in a way that is in danger of being normalized. Hence the audience member’s question at the start of the second presidential debate: “The last presidential debate could’ve been rated as MA—Mature Audiences—per TV parental guidelines. Knowing that educators are tying the presidential debates to student’s homework, do you feel you are modeling appropriate and positive behavior for today’s youth?”
The candidates were both able to side-step answering the question, but it certainly continues to resonate in the atmosphere and remains relevant to our ministries. If this is how we adults talk to and about each other nowadays—even those of us who are leaders—then is this also how our young people will talk to and about others from now on? For as James Baldwin so wisely wrote in 1961’s Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. They must, they have no other models.”
If Baldwin is right, then our love for young people requires those of us in the Church to model a very different kind of discourse than what we are absorbing from the conversation swirling all around us. And hear this good news, friends: The Christian tradition is replete with the most fundamental language that provides us with a model for doing this work. I am speaking, of course, about the language of prayer.
Prayer as Divine Discourse
In prayer, we come before God with the acute awareness that we are summoning the presence of an Audience wholly unlike any other. The most basic beginning point of any prayer is the recognition that we are not the same as the One to whom we are speaking. As we bring our prayers and petitions before God, we are filled with the knowledge that this is how all of us humans—the ones we love, the ones we hate, the ones with whom we agree, and the ones with whom we disagree—this is how all we call upon God. And in so doing, we present ourselves vulnerable to God’s intimate knowledge and love of us. There’s no use in trying to hide, for “[you] are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, You know it completely” (Psalm 139:3b–4). In the fullness of this knowledge, we can speak plainly, truthfully, and with humility of heart and place.
Into this Advent season, we come together and prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord, who was and is and is to come. We light candles, we sing songs, we meditate on hope, peace, love, and joy. As we do, I invite you to join me in prayer and to allow this prayer to be a starting place for reimagining and returning to language that is a model for our young people and a transformation to our own lives.
For the next few weeks, the IYM Blog will publish prayers written by a diverse group of contributors who are letting us listen in on their intimate conversations with God. We invite you to read them in this light with a generosity of spirit and grace and to reflect within yourselves and with the young people in your care on the following questions:
-How does this prayer help me think differently about God?
-What are the concerns that are informing this person’s theology?
-How does this prayer reframe issues in ways I had not before considered?
Megan DeWald is the Assistant Director of the Institute for Youth Ministry, where she runs the Certificate in Youth and Theology program and manages digital content. Previously, Megan served as the Site Coordinator of the PCUSA’s Young Adult Volunteer program in Nashville, Tennessee. With 15 years of youth ministry experience, Megan is passionate about cultivating leaders in the Church.