To Be a Tree

Reflections on what a tree in my back yard is teaching me about being a teacher.

Oh, to be a tree
I thought as I looked up
At the towering trunk
Reaching up to the blue sky
And then I thought as I looked closer
At the flurry of activity
On every square inch of its bark
If only I, like the tree,
Could be a playground for flourishing life

Oh, to have roots deep enough
That I can be home to
All the little creatures
That nest among
The cracks and crevices
Of my bark
Of my soul

Oh, to be such a
Gracious host
To otherness:
The cobwebs strung from branch to branch
With their spiders busily weaving a home;
The lichens that,
In the safety of my bark
Are able to grow and become;
The ivy that wraps around me
In a grateful hug
As it lives and grows
Upward;
The squirrels for whom I am a jungle gym
Who dash here and there
And make daring leaps from swaying twigs;
The birds who perch in my branches,
Serenading their neighbors;
The woodpeckers who,
Finding nourishment in my trunk,
Forever leave their mark on me.

Oh, to be a home
Where life can flourish
And thrive
And grow
Oh, to invite a thousand lives
To be their truest selves
Because in me
They find space to breathe
To be

Oh, to need not say a word
Because my roots are
Deep enough
My trunk
Strong enough
My presence
Inviting enough
To listen them to life

And I,
I get a front row seat
To their song

An Easter Monday Poem

Blessed are those
Who fell asleep on Easter night
Still disappointed and confused
For they are not alone

They are joined by frightened disciples
Bewildered women
Doubting Thomas
And the ones on the road to Emmaus
Who unknowingly confessed that evening
To Jesus himself
They no longer hoped he was the one

In fact
There were no celebrations that first Easter
No dramatic reveal
Some believed early that morning
Others learned that night
One waited another whole week
To be glad
And it was all more chaotic and haphazard
Than the tidy happy story
Our sunrise services tell

But their doubt
Did not keep Christ from rising
Christ rose in the darkness
Whether or not they believed

This year, I am comforted in knowing
That Christ’s rising is not contingent on my belief
Or whether I feel like rejoicing
Christ does not need my permission to rise
Christ is risen anyway
I do not roll away the stone with my praises
It was gone before I awoke
I do not conjure the risen Christ
By keeping vigil
And Christ does not stay in the tomb
If I fall asleep early
Or numbly watch Netflix instead

And so it does not matter
Whether we can bring ourselves to
Celebrate on Easter Sunday
Or with Thomas next week
It matters only that
Christ rises in the darkness
Whether or not we believe

Love and Vulnerability: Reading the Song of Songs in a Pandemic

In my previous post in this series, Finding Joy in Futility, I noted that one of Qohelet’s recommendations for enjoyment is to “enjoy life with the one whom you love” (Ecc. 9:9). Where Qohelet hints at sexual love, the Song of Songs takes up his recommendation with gusto in a full-blown, eight-chapter erotic love poem. And with all the memes joking about a future boom of quarantine babies, it’s clear that sex is on everyone’s mind anyway, so why not dive into the Song of Songs and learn more about what this giggle-inducing book of the Bible has to say to us in the midst of a pandemic?

The Song of Songs is typically not considered wisdom literature, but it has affinities with the wisdom genre that lead some scholars to identify it as wisdom – or at least a blend of genres, perhaps a wisdom framework applied to the genre of love poetry. These affinities include the Song’s focus on the created world, life lived well, and the tensions in life that characterize the human experience. I wrote about how the divine speeches in Job showcase the tension between order and chaos, and how Ecclesiastes teaches us about the tension between hevel and joy. The Song of Songs embodies the same approach to life – it recognizes the tensions between love and loss, security and danger, and yet it paints a picture of living fully and loving with abandon. It recognizes the vulnerability that comes with giving oneself freely to another.

For the most part, the landscape of the Song is one of extravagant beauty, unrestrained passion, and delightful mutuality between the lovers. They take the time to gaze at one another, admiring every feature in detail. They make love surrounded by the beauty of the natural world. It is springtime in the Song; the rain is gone, the flowers are blooming, and everything is fair and fragrant. The imagery throughout most of the Song seems so blissful and serene that it leads Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis to suggest that the Song is a reclamation of the wholeness of relationship in Eden before the fall; relationships between God and humans, men and women, humans and the earth, are imagined to be in harmony (Davis, “Reading the Song Iconographically”).

And yet there are woven into the poetry, sometimes more explicitly than others, hints that all is not well in this idyllic landscape. No one is entirely sure what they mean. The scene in which the beloved searches the city streets for her lover, only to be beaten and possibly otherwise assaulted by the guards (5:7). The brothers of the beloved, forcing her to hard labor in their anger (1:6). The strange admonition to catch the foxes who, running wild, may destroy the blossoming vineyard (2:15). Elaine James notes the threat the foxes could pose, as they can prey on both doves and gazelles – the zoomorphic representations of the lover and the beloved.

And finally, there is the reflection on love at the end of the poem: “Love is as strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave” (8:6). Here the hints at danger become most explicit, as the presence of death is acknowledged; rhetorically speaking, here love and death meet each other face to face and are revealed to be an equal match.

Although the lovers seem at first glance to enjoy one another without a care – although they give off an air of youthful exuberance and naivete – the poem reveals knowledge of risk, potential harm, and even the inevitability of death. James writes, “The suggestive quality of death’s presence…presses us to imagine the lovers in a landscape that is aware of its finitude” (James, Landscapes of the Song of Songs, 86)They are not naive about the world or about their own vulnerability. They choose to risk love anyway, despite any threat to their relationship – or do they perhaps love so passionately because they are aware of love’s fragility?

I do not think the Song paints a picture of a perfect love, untouched by cares and hardship. Instead, I think it depicts a love that is only able to be as passionate as it is vulnerable.

The Song’s emphasis on human bodies and physical pleasure implies great vulnerability. First, I think it is often easier and feels safer to think abstractly, to focus on our minds. We tell ourselves that we love someone’s mind or spirit, rather than confessing that we love their soft lips and supple body, because we like to pretend that we are above such earthy, sensual things. Even talking about the Song makes us blush. Sharing anything about our own body feels intensely vulnerable. Many of us even find it hard to love our own bodies, let alone feel free and unrestrained in them. In our post-Enlightenment western world, it is much more comfortable and much less vulnerable to be a mind than a body. Second, by de-emphasizing embodiment, we can also rationalize loss away. We can look at a body in a casket and tell ourselves that “she’s not really there” or “that’s not really him,” to minimize the pain of seeing the live, warm, moving body we love lying so terribly still. It protects us against the vulnerability of embodied love.

But to the degree that we minimize the role of the body, we also minimize our potential for full engagement in the world, for passionate love. Activities like cooking become a chore to be gotten over with as quickly as possible. We work out at gyms for efficiency’s sake, staring either at TV’s or sterile white walls because our bodies don’t naturally move as much as they should anymore. And yes, we are having less sex than we used to, perhaps partially due to technology (https://www.today.com/health/americans-are-having-less-sex-here-s-why-it-matters-t151817). Programmed to sublimate physical pleasures to mental productivity, we miss out on so much of the enjoyment that God has for us here, in the world, in this moment. Because the truth is, we are embodied creatures meant to experience a physical world.

And so the message of the Song, I think, extends beyond sexual encounters. Cheryl Exum writes, “Among other things, the Song contributes to the Bible an unparalleled affirmation of the pleasures of the flesh, the strength of love, and the beauty of the created world” (Exum, Song of Songs, 72). In the Song, love for another, love for one’s self, and love for the created world all seem to be bound up together. But one thing is for sure: the Song is surely one of the most physical books of the Bible, that takes pure and unashamed delight in beauty and pleasure.

For me, the combined experience of quarantine and a recent miscarriage has put me more in tune with my body, and caring for it more, than I have in a long time – even though sex hasn’t been an option for the better part of a month. I’ve been charting my cycle and paying close attention to how my body feels. Taking long, hot bubble baths, where my whole body sinks into the water like a contented sigh. Going for long walks in the woods every day, noticing the beauty of the world around me, making sustained eye contact with squirrels and feeling gleeful about it. Cooking healthy meals and experimenting with new recipes, dancing in the kitchen, sipping wine while smelling and tasting soup. Holding hands with my love and savoring kisses. I think Qohelet and the Beloved would both be proud. And I think God is, too.

So as I wrap up this series on reading wisdom literature in a pandemic, allow the sages to assure you that however you are coping in these times is likely okay. As Qohelet would say, “God has already approved what you do” (Ecc. 9:7) – because God has made you human and placed you in a world where these things happen. And so it is good to grieve. It is also good to have moments of pleasure and joy. They go together, because that is part of what it means to be human, to be embodied, to be what God created us to be.

These three books – Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Song – seem to promote similar ideas: that terrible things happen in the world, that “playing it safe” cannot guarantee our safety, and that the best response to life’s uncertainty is to live as fully as one can. Even for those who are quarantined at home, threats loom all around like foxes at the edge of our vineyard. But we cannot let fear of the future or of the unknown keep us from being fully present to our lover, to ourselves, and to our lives. Because, as Qohelet has already told us, the pure and simple enjoyment of love is our portion in life.

Finding Joy in Futility: Reading Ecclesiastes in a Pandemic

Ecclesiastes is one of the less-cherished books of the canon. In fact, it nearly didn’t make it into the canon because of arguments over its seeming lack of orthodoxy. It has historically been known for its cynicism; theologian Gerhard von Rad referred to it as a “bitter skeptical marginal note on the tradition of the wise men,” and Qohelet (Hebrew for “the Teacher”) as one who was “suspended over the abyss of despair” (Old Testament Theology vol. 1, 455-459). On the other end of the spectrum, however, Qohelet has been called a “preacher of joy” (Whybray, “Qoheleth, Preacher of Joy,” JSOT 7 [1982]). Which one is right? Or could he be both? And how might his strange and unorthodox-sounding theology help us cope with living in a pandemic?

Eunny Lee takes a more nuanced view of Qohelet’s internal state, calling him a “faithful realist.” One thing that can certainly be said for Qohelet is that he is honest and does not shy away from the harsh realities of life. In Ecclesiastes, no spiritual platitudes serve as a bandaid to the bleak landscape of meaningless existence he describes. Instead, we’re forced to confront it and dwell in it for 12 chapters. Aside from the epilogue, the book begins and ends with the same refrain: “‘Futility of futilities!’ says Qohelet. ‘Utterly futile! Everything is futile!'” As one of the teenagers in my youth group put it, “He tells it like it is…it’s like the un-sugarcoated version of life.”

But I believe it is this very honesty, this willingness to confront reality and tell it like it is, that enables Qohelet to give us meaningful advice for living through these times.

There is a scene in the Disney-Pixar film Inside Out, in which Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong begins to cry because she has forgotten him. Joy feels very uncomfortable and immediately tries to do anything she can to cheer up Bing Bong, to move past his grief as quickly as possible – telling jokes, making funny faces, tickling him. Nothing works. But then Sadness comes and sits beside Bing Bong. “I’m sorry they took your rocket,” she tells him. “They took something that you loved. And now it’s gone. Forever.” And she and Bing Bong sit and cry together. And a remarkable thing happens: somehow, Sadness brings Bing Bong more joy than Joy can. (Calvin Cooke, “Finding Joy in an Unjust World,” JYM 17 [2019]).

Reading Ecclesiastes during this time is like Sadness sitting beside us, describing frankly what has happened and, well, how much it sucks. “You didn’t get to have the wedding you’ve always dreamed of, even though you worked hard to plan it for months, even though you deserve it. And that’s not fair.” “You didn’t get to be there for your niece’s birthday, and that’s a day you’ll never get back. Time just keeps on going, no matter how much you wish it wouldn’t.” “You were working so hard and doing so well at your job, and now you don’t know how you’ll make ends meet. It’s not supposed to work that way.” This pandemic took something you loved. And now it’s gone. Forever.

In the midst of upbeat, inspirational memes assuring us that everything happens for a reason, sometimes the painful truth is what we need to hear. And Qohelet tells it.

In fact, Qohelet tells us all that he has seen under the sun, all the “grievous ills” he has witnessed. And it’s a depressing picture. Entire fortunes worked for and lost in the blink of an eye (5:13-14). The tears of the oppressed under the power of their oppressors (4:1). Exhausting, unceasing toil (2:22-23). That the wise and the foolish share the same fate (2:14-17). It’s a world of injustice in which things don’t work the way they’re supposed to – the race is not to the swift, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, but time and chance happen to them all (9:11).

And Qohelet has a word for all of these things: they are all hevel. Hevel is the Hebrew word translated “meaningless” or “vanity.” It actually means breath, or puff of smoke. It means that something is ephemeral, fleeting, ungraspable; Qohelet often follows the word hevel with the qualifying phrase, “chasing after the wind.” It is both ungraspable and absurd. In the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament), the word is mataiotes, the same word Paul uses in Romans 8 when he says that the creation was subjected to “futility.” People getting what others worked for – this is hevel. The fact that sometimes the wicked come out on top, while the good suffer – hevel. All of our goals and plans, all the effort we expend to reach them, only for them to be taken away from us – hevel.

But this is not all that Qohelet has to say. Woven into his observations and reflections about the nature of life is a refrain about joy, of all things. Joy, in the midst of this topsy-turvy, nonsensical world he describes! Ironically, in the face of existential crisis, Qohelet sees that enjoyment can be found only in the very physical, grounded realities of eating and drinking. He continually returns to this refrain eight different times after describing another of life’s absurdities. Because it is only once we recognize and acknowledge how fleeting our life is and how little control we actually have, that we can begin to let go of our futile grasp on it and really live it. 

In the beginning, he notes only that enjoyment is what “he has seen to be good.” But then he moves from observing the goodness of bread and wine, to commending it: “So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat and drink, and enjoy themselves” (8:15). And finally, the refrain crescendos into an imperative:

“Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the one whom you love, all the days of this hevel life that are given to you under the sun, because that is your portion in life, and in your toil at which you toil under the sun” (9:7-9).

With the dramatic build toward the imperative, the emphasis on how to eat and drink (with “enjoyment” and a “merry heart”), and the addition of other activities of enjoyment, here Qohelet’s theology of joy “swells into a veritable celebration of life” (Lee, Vitality of Enjoyment, 64).

Perhaps such a mundane concept of joy seems inadequate to existential crisis. The world is falling apart all around me, people are dying, and his answer to that is to…relish a glass of wine?? Or perhaps it seems spiritually lacking. Shouldn’t my comfort come from the knowledge that there is more than this life? What is this about food and sex being my “portion in life”?

But in fact, allowing ourselves to live fully and enjoy these everyday embodied activities may be an aspect of what it means to “fear God.” The epilogue of Ecclesiastes admonishes us to “fear God, for this is the whole duty of humankind” (12:13). Eunny Lee takes this as a summary of Qohelet’s argument up to that point; what it means to fear God is to understand one’s place in the world as a finite creature who is not God and who cannot control the vicissitudes of life, and “to recognize both the tragic limitations and the joyous possibilities of human existence” (Lee, Vitality of Enjoyment, 8).

This is the wisdom of Ecclesiastes: enjoy what God has given you in the present, because it is not guaranteed and may not be here tomorrow. Love the fleeting moments. Especially in this time where the pace has slowed down somewhat, savor that cup of coffee or glass of wine. Revel in the delicious dinner you made and the small bit of comfort it brings you. Delight in the feel of the warm shower, the crisp sheets, the cool breeze. When everything else is uncertain, this is your portion in life. Not the 401k or your stocks, but this bowl of ice cream, in this moment, because it is a gift of God.

In her bestselling book One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp recalls her journey of noticing and writing down all of the small, mundane gifts throughout the day. “Jam piled high on the toast…leafy life scent of the florist shop…kettle whistling for tea on a cold afternoon” (Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts, 45, 83). Voskamp’s book, and her practice of journaling, make Qohelet’s theology of joy practical and accessible for us. Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis writes,

“Such minutely specific blessings may be the best way for us to learn how to pray as we ought, for they aim at the basic purpose of all praise: to sanctify the world, to name it as holy. Saying those myriad tiny prayers is like seeing our world and our own life as a crystal, holding it up and letting light fall on its different facets. They remind us that nothing, nothing at all may be taken for granted” (Davis, Getting Involved with God, 40).

So what is the message of Ecclesiastes for you in this season? What grievous ills have you seen under the sun, what hevel and wind-chasing has this pandemic made evident? What is there that you need to name and grieve? What small enjoyments in these days of quarantine are your portion, your gift from God? And what can you do to receive them?

Chaos and Turmoil: The Book of Job in a Pandemic

As COVID-19 has begun to shut down the United States, most of us are grieving losses of some sort or another. We grieve the loss of time spent with family and friends; we grieve the loss of vacations and events; we grieve the loss of jobs and stability. We grieve potential losses as we fear for the health of our parents and grandparents. But underlying all of these specific losses, I think there is a more abstract and profound type of loss. We grieve change; we wonder whether things will ever go back to “normal,” and we grieve the loss of the world as we previously knew it. When we experience a loss in normal times, we can figure out how to cope; we know where to turn for comfort and stability. But when seismic events like these occur, there is none to be found, because they disrupt any sense of order in our lives. It feels chaotic, but not just in the sense of panic buying in crowded grocery stores. It is chaotic in the sense that our structures and routines have been stripped away – everything comfortable and familiar – leaving us scrambling to figure out what to do and how to cope. It feels like there’s nothing under our feet, nothing to hold onto, because everything we’ve taken for granted has been called into question. Nothing feels certain anymore.

And it is in this space of utter lostness that our old friend Job finds us.

Ask a dozen scholars what theological issue the book of Job is trying to address, and you’ll likely get a dozen answers. It is difficult to pin down precisely what the book of Job is about; Saint Jerome in the 4th century said of Job, “It is like trying to grasp a little eel; the tighter you squeeze it, the sooner it escapes.” There are a number of themes that Job seems to address: the nature of disinterested piety (the question that concerns the Accuser in the prologue – do people fear God for nothing?), the problem of suffering and especially innocent suffering, the themes of order and chaos in creation, and the divine-human relationship. My own understanding is that Job is intended to raise several different questions and explore them all, rather than attempting to answer definitively or thoroughly treat any one of them.

But the theme in Job that I find most compelling is the idea of chaos in creation, and it is one that I find particularly meaningful during this time of fear and uncertainty. Most of the time, we like to cling to the illusion that we are in control of our lives. When a mysterious, frightening, uncontrollable pandemic sweeps the globe, that illusion is lost. We recognize that nothing is guaranteed, that there is a randomness to life and loss. And I think it is this same realization that Job is confronted with, rages against, and gradually comes to accept.

After the recounting of Job’s insurmountable loss, and after Job’s famous declaration of piety – “The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away” – chapter 3 opens with Job cursing the day of his birth and even God’s creation (“let there be darkness” can be read as the wishful undoing of God’s command “let there be light”). In this initial outburst, Job expresses his misery and longing never to have been born, concluding with these words: “Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I have no ease, no quiet, no rest; but turmoil comes.”

Wisdom scholar Carol Newsom points out that Job does not say that he had dreaded the loss of his family and possessions and health. Instead, he implies that what he had feared was rather rogez, or turmoil. The closing words of ch. 3 reveal that Job’s material loss, although profound, is only the veneer for what truly disturbs him. Everything he believed about God and the world has been turned upside down. Order and coherence have given way to chaos and turmoil; his world, once so ordered and orderly, now makes no sense at all. He grasps for meaning, and cannot find it.

Throughout the next 39 chapters, Job attempts to make sense of life once again, to put the pieces of his theology back together. His friends assume that he must have sinned in order to deserve this suffering. Job knows that he has not, but he assumes that someone must be to blame. That someone, Job believes, must be God; that is the only logical alternative. God has done this to Job because God is a cruel tyrant who delights in torturing humans. (Haven’t read that part of Job? Check out chapter 16.)

When God finally answers Job, the divine speech from the whirlwind is both terrifying and exhilarating – and it introduces a completely new understanding of the world of which Job and his friends could not have conceived. While they have argued over who is to blame for the suffering, God does not engage this question; in fact, God’s response indicates that this is not the right question at all, and that their explanation of chaos is far too narrow and self-centered. Job and his friends – and humankind as a whole – do not even feature in the divine speeches but are reduced to a mere speck, an audience to a cosmic exhibition. Instead, God speaks about the mystery of the cosmos, the habits and hiding places of rain and snow, the wildness of the animal kingdom, and finally the terrifying, untamable grandeur of the chaos monsters Behemoth and Leviathan. The chaos which Job has so feared, and which he thinks God has unleashed on him, is just a part of the created order.

While God claims ownership over creation and alludes to the subduing of chaotic forces (38:10-11), the overarching theme of the divine speech is that of a wild, untamable, unruly creation – and the terrifying beauty of the undomesticated. What Job had tried to intellectually possess and control is revealed to be utterly beyond his grasp; his tour of creation shows him that the beauty and value of creation is inseparable from its wildness and freedom. Although God has set boundaries for creation, God has nonetheless woven chaos into its very fabric, such that “the sheer vitality of creation itself will produce situations and results beyond God’s control” (McCann, “Wisdom’s Dilemma,” 23). Job cannot demand answers from a creation that refuses to give them. He cannot control what even God does not control. Thus, Job must accept that suffering and chaos are “simply…conditions for participation in creation” (ibid).

The divine speeches serve as a kind of invitation for Job to be a part of this world of chaos, accepting it for what it is and finding his place within it. Presumably, Job accepts the invitation. He responds with humility, but I would argue that it is his willingness to go on with life and to bear children once again – arguably the most vulnerable act of all – that serves as his RSVP. Scholars have long noted the unusualness of the narrator telling us that, afterward, Job gave his daughters inheritance alongside his sons – something that wasn’t common in that time. Why? Perhaps because in a world of chaos, Job is more willing to color outside the lines, to live fully in the face of uncertainty. Perhaps, having accepted the wildness and freedom of the created world, Job himself can live with a little more freedom and spontaneity, holding what he has a bit more loosely.

I think the book of Job gives us a much richer and more complex theology of suffering than we give it credit for, and one that gives us a framework for understanding something like a pandemic. In fact, ironically, Newsom believes that a virus might be our most adequate comparison to the way the Israelites feared the great chaos monsters Behemoth and Leviathan. A virus, like those creatures, is something mysterious and terrifying, something we cannot understand and of which we live in fear. What does it mean for God to speak of COVID-19 as a wild creature that frolics in its domain, before whom terror dances (41:22)? We cannot control it, and we feel helpless before it. Nonetheless, we coexist with it in this creation, and we must find a way to live in a world where so many things are beyond our control or understanding.

There is terror in creation, but there is beauty, too – sometimes apart from the terror, and sometimes even within it. There is no love without loss, no rainbow without rain. Even in the present crisis, we recognize the strange truth that there are gifts tied up with the losses – more time with our family, a cleaner environment, a chance to slow down and rest. We could not disentangle the threads if we wanted to. Chaos is merely a condition of life in this world.

In crises like these, we naturally try to make some kind of meaning out of it or at least find some explanation. Did we do something wrong – is God punishing us? Or has God brought this upon us so that we would return to God? Is God not all-powerful – or is God just not good? I believe that Job shows us that there is a certain randomness and unpredictability to creation. Not that God is overpowered by God’s own creation, or that God is impotent in the face of contagion – but that God has created wild things and allowed them to go free. Us included.

This pandemic has not fundamentally changed reality for us; it has merely unveiled it. Instead of living in denial, we are now confronted daily with the chaos of the world and with our own smallness and fragility in light of it. But now that we are aware of this dynamic, perhaps we can follow Job by living fully into it and embracing the life we have in all its complexity and chaos, in all its sorrows and joys. You, too, are a creature. Be wild and free and beautiful. Bring children into the world, even though it’s a risky and courageous thing to do – for the ostrich (39:14-15), for Job, and for you. Give them playful and extravagant names like Cinnamon and Eyeshadow (42:14) and give to them without holding back. Buck the trend and challenge social norms. Innovate and color outside the lines. And maybe, when this is all over, we will focus less on controlling our lives and more on living them.

 

The Youth Minister as Midwife

There are many images or metaphors that one can use to think about the role of the youth pastor. One might be a trail guide – one who has traveled the path before and can walk alongside young people on their journey, pointing out areas of beauty to contemplate or difficulty to watch out for, and helping them reach their destination. Another might be a coach – one who pushes young people to reach their fullest potential, helping them train their minds and bodies for the spiritual life the way one trains for a sport. No metaphor is exhaustive or perfectly describes the role, but it can give insight into a youth pastor’s assumptions about youth, themselves, and the life of faith, and illuminate why they do what they do as a youth pastor. What is their goal when they teach? How do they interact with young people? How do they hope they will have shaped or formed young people by the time they leave youth group?

One of my deepest core convictions guiding the way I do youth ministry is that young people have gifts to offer and vocations to live out. Because of that, everything that I do in youth ministry is intended to equip and empower them to live out their God-given vocation to love others and heal the world. I deeply trust the passions of youth, seeing them not as something to be tamed and tamped down, but rather encouraged and resourced. When I teach or lead discussion, I try to do so in such a way as to value their agency, respect their contributions, and help them find their own voice. Because of this, the image of the youth pastor that comes most naturally to me is that of the midwife. I find that it meaningfully describes my philosophy of youth ministry for several reasons.

First, a midwife is someone who assists in the birth of someone else’s child. The midwife had nothing to do with the child growing in the womb – her job is to bring into the world what is already in the world, in nascent form, hidden within the mother and known to her alone. It’s easy to think sometimes that young people are like blank slates, and our job is to write on those slates all the creeds and doctrines of the faith. But I don’t believe young people are blank slates – no matter how young, I believe that God has given them a vocation and gifts that will resource them. I didn’t put it there, and I cannot claim credit for it. And while I may assist in the birth, it is their body that will give birth. I can teach them spiritual practices the way a midwife might teach breathing techniques. I can give them information and resources. I can be at their side, wiping their tears, coaching them to breathe and push as they do the hard part. But at the end of the day, they have done it. They had what it takes all along.

Second, the role of a midwife is to care for the mother as well as the child – it is both healing and purposeful. As a scholar trained in religious education, I spend a lot of time thinking about the role that education plays in youth ministry in relation to other aspects of the work. Ultimately, I find Christian education inextricably intertwined and enmeshed with pastoral care. Teaching should be caring and pastoral, not authoritative and abstract; and pastoral care and the healing it provides should contribute to the growth of the young person. We shouldn’t be attempting to achieve a goal that ignores the young person in front of us and their need for care (delivering a baby without regard for the mother’s health and comfort), but we also shouldn’t deny that our role in their lives is something other than a best friend. There is a purpose and goal to our role as youth pastors, and it is to care for our young people as we help name and resource their own Christian vocation.

Third, the practice of midwifery is rooted in hope and expectation. Jurgen Moltmann’s eschatology reminds us that our hope in the future of Jesus Christ radically changes the way we live here and now. We are always pressing toward, and living into, that future in which everything will be made new. The apostle Paul reminds us of this in Romans 8 – that the world groans in the pains of childbirth as it hopes for what it does not yet see. In Educating Congregations, Christian educator Chuck Foster writes about the implications of this theology for education in the church. Christian education in youth ministry isn’t just about passing down the tradition, but it’s also about pressing toward the future. We don’t just hand on the doctrines and creeds as though they are something to be kept preserved in a glass case, or as though they themselves are the faith. Rather, they are testaments to and resources of the living faith that is always speaking good news into changing contexts. So when we teach, we aim to awaken the theological imagination of young people, so that they can dare to live into God’s future and participate in it. Which brings me to my fourth point…

Fourth, the ultimate goal of the midwife is to deliver life to the world. The work can be painful and messy, but the promise of new life is what keeps us going. And it is life that is the goal – not tithes or attendance or a safe, uneventful transition to adulthood. We should not be preparing our young people to be wealthy and successful by the world’s standards. We should not be teaching a gospel of behavior management so that they can be “good enough Christians.” We should not be passing on a faith that sustains the status quo for the benefit of the powerful at the expense of the marginalized. If we are equipping our young people to be bearers of a gospel that is death-dealing rather than life-giving, it is no gospel at all. No, the youth pastor as midwife loves, works for, bears witness to, and delivers life to a broken and hurting world. And where is evidence of life? Well, it is first in literal life. If young people live out their faith by feeding the hungry, working for a suicide hotline, or studying nursing, there is life. Second, it is in love and human connection. If they love the unlovable, offer hospitality to the stranger, and march for civil rights, there is life. And third, it is in spiritual liberation and healing, offering the hope and abundant life found in Christ.

While these are the four reasons that most get to the core of how I conceive of youth ministry, there are two other meaningful aspects of the midwife image that are more like playful addenda:

  • The midwife image is deeply connected to embodiment. I love the mind and the intellect, I really do. I love helping young people develop the discipline of critical thinking, and it brings me so much joy to watch them get excited about it, to re-animate the love for learning that school so often dulls. But our minds are not the only way we learn and process information. We also learn, know, innovate, and remember through our bodies. So I love pedagogies that lift up the role of the body – sensory stimulation, various forms of drama. So often in our post-Enlightenment culture, we sublimate the intuitive knowing of the body to the “certainty” of the rational mind. In fact, this is one of educator bell hooks’ feminist critiques of critical pedagogy, and one of the ways she builds on it – we tend to neglect the role of the body in emancipatory education. Thus, she focuses on holistic healing in teaching – mind, body, and spirit.
  • To think of youth ministry as midwifery allows for travail – more commonly called “teen angst” – without pathologizing it in the way we tend to. So often we fail to take seriously the suffering of our young people, chalking it up to “raging hormones” or “attitude” instead of taking it seriously as real pain, but pain out of which life can emerge.

So this is my philosophy of youth ministry in a nutshell – to labor alongside young people,  to care for them, to nurture their faith, and to assist them in discovering and living out their Christian vocation to love others and bring life into the world. It’s mostly them and God, this process. God is the creator of life, and they co-create and labor to bring that life into the world. I just get to be there to help deliver it, and to share in their joy.

“I’m Not Racist”: On Scorning Rebuke

“I’m not racist!” The words instinctively leapt from my mouth the way one might throw up their arms to block a punch. Self-defense – as if I could project my protest as a kind of shield to ward off the blame. How could they attack my intentions when my heart was pure? If only they knew me! I felt unfairly typed and misunderstood.

But I’ve since learned that I was the one who misunderstood. I didn’t understand that my words and actions carried implications of which I was ignorant. I didn’t understand that my intentions were not the only piece of the puzzle. I didn’t understand that I am caught up in a system that privileges white skin, and that even if I personally didn’t feel racist, that didn’t absolve me of responsibility for the way my words could wound. I could have learned that sooner if I hadn’t been so quick to protect myself. But the moment I put up that shield with my words, I refused to listen and I refused to learn. And as I closed my heart to wisdom, I took a step down the path of the fool.

Proverbs has a lot to say about discipline and rebuke. And strangely, as it turns out, rebuke isn’t just for the fool. It’s also for the wise, as this proverb reminds us: “Do not rebuke scoffers, otherwise they will hate you; rebuke the wise, and they will love you” (Prov. 9:8). Reflecting on this passage, wisdom scholar William Brown writes, “Here the defining character trait of the wise is the capacity to receive correction with a collegial sense of appreciation. An individual’s willingness to accept correction gratefully is itself a mark of wisdom…Only the wise know most clearly that wisdom is their gain even at the cost of self-certainty and pride” (Brown, Wisdom’s Wonder, 56).

Wisdom isn’t about being right. It’s not about being smart. It’s less about getting an A and more about learning from an F. It’s about being humble and teachable. The wise never “make it” – they are never beyond learning, never beyond correction. The wise are not those who have achieved Wisdom, but rather those who are in constant pursuit of her. In a paradoxical way, the ones who most nearly approach Wisdom are those who know they are not even close.

My natural tendency is to become ashamed, angry, and self-defensive when I receive criticism or rebuke. My foolishness shows. But the one seeking Wisdom embraces criticism as a teacher and is not afraid, because for her, knowledge is about love and growth – not competition. She has no need to hunker down and hide, nor defend herself to preserve her dignity, because she knows Wisdom loves her (Prov. 8:17) and will embrace her even in the embarrassment of the moment of rebuke. Her confidence comes not from her reputation, but from the inner strength that comes from the knowledge that she is growing. As John Dewey wrote, immaturity is not a lack, but rather a positive sign that growth is possible. So the one seeking Wisdom receives rebuke like a plant receives rain, letting it strengthen her roots in love. She embraces it like a beloved mentor that can show her the way. If she can let down her walls and draw close to it, she may find that it lovingly whispers in her ear the secrets of Wisdom.

There is much to learn in a rebuke: about ourselves, about others, about language, about faith, about the wounds of the world and how we can play a part in their healing. There is, first, the action that gave rise to the rebuke. What did we do or say? What was our mood, our tone, our motive? Second, there is the rebuke itself. What does it teach us about ourselves and how we can grow? What does it tell us about the way our action was received? Then there is the person who gave it. Why did they give it? What do we learn about them? How are they hurting – even if we didn’t intend to cause it? And how can we help to heal it? Fourth, there is our knee-jerk reaction to it. What did we feel, and where in our body did we feel it? Why was it so gosh-darn painful – and what does that show us about ourselves, our unmet needs, our deepest fears? These emotional depths – which we prefer to leave unplumbed – have riches to share with us, if we’re brave enough to enter into them.

Most of us don’t want to be thought of as racist. But when someone points out to us that our words or actions had connotations we didn’t intend, we must be careful not to scorn the rebuke and become a fool. To prove that we’re not racist, we want to cry, “I’m not racist!” – but then we’ve turned the focus back on ourselves and missed the point. Insisting on our innocence doesn’t make us innocent; if anything, it shows that we’re more concerned to defend ourselves to our black sisters and brothers, than to defend them against racism. As educator bell hooks reminds us, anti-racism consists in practicing it regardless of whether we receive approval for it. And so, when someone rebukes us for racial insensitivity, the most anti-racist thing to do is not to protest, but rather to listen and learn. It’s also the wise thing to do, because we cannot learn while we are busy protesting our innocence. We can only learn when we make ourselves vulnerable to the educative wound of rebuke.

When we scorn rebuke, we do ourselves no favors. We think that we’re protecting ourselves when we insist on our rightness, on our righteousness. But then we discover that it was no enemy rebuking us – it was Wisdom knocking on our door with a bag of rubies and a bottle of fine wine, inviting us to her feast.

And we turned her away.

A Letter to the Church of Christ

Dear Church of Christ,

I know you’d rather not believe it some days, but I am your daughter. Church of Christ through and through, I was born into your welcoming arms, taught in your Sunday school, and baptized into your family at the age of nine. Some of my earliest memories as a three- and four-year-old are of coloring in Sunday school, playing Mother May I up and down the center aisle of the auditorium, excitedly reciting the books of the Old Testament to anyone who would listen. It was you who raised me, and you to whom I owe my formative upbringing and my love for Christ. It was you who made me who I am today.

It was you who taught me a deep love for the church. I even played church when I was little – my siblings and I called our church “Bellwood Church of Christ,” an amalgamation of the names of the two churches that had been part of our life. I remember copying music from the hymnbook to make my own, filling out attendance cards, serving my siblings crackers and grape juice, as I could not serve in “real church” because I was a little girl and not a little boy. This love for the church is why I am still here – why I still sit in your pews, even though tears stream down my cheeks some Sundays and the anxiety turns my stomach in knots.

It was you who taught me to love Scripture. I participated in Bible Bowl every year, I asked for a new Bible for multiple Christmases, and in middle school I memorized the book of James on my own volition. I remember sitting on the wrought iron bench down by the creek, closing my eyes and reciting it over and over: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” It was that love for Scripture you taught me that led me to study it, to question it, to come to new understandings of it. It was my love for Scripture that led me to study theology and biblical exegesis in college and pull all-nighters writing papers on obscure passages, to minor in Greek so I could read the New Testament in its original language, to move across the country to go to seminary for 3 years, then to go through the rigor of a Ph.D. in religious education to write a dissertation on biblical theology in youth ministry – falling more deeply in love with Scripture all the time. Imagine the shock and confusion I feel when you tell me, over and over, that I disrespect the Word of God and that if I actually read the Bible, I would “get it.”

It was you who taught me of the priesthood of all believers – that one does not need to be ordained to be a minister, that everyone can preach the gospel, and that everyone has equal standing in the body of Christ. It was this doctrine which made me question why I was not included as a full member of the community. I would sit in the pew as a young girl, watching the “young men” lead worship, and wondering why I could not, as I certainly had more enthusiasm for it. You taught me that I did not need to go through anyone to speak to God, which made me wonder why I could not pray in church except through the leadership of a man. It was you who taught me that I am equal in God’s eyes, and when I acted equal, then told me, “Not like that.”

It was you who taught me to seek unity. Isn’t that how the Church of Christ came to be – with Presbyterians, fed up with sectarianism, who wanted to extend an ecumenical hand to all who profess Christ? But when I speak positively of my experience at a Presbyterian seminary or talk about what I learned from my United Methodist friends, you question my commitment to the church. And when my theology or politics differs from yours, you tell me you wish I would “just leave.” But how does one “just leave” their family? How does one “just leave” the only church they’ve ever known?

It was you who taught me to follow the call of Christ even if people mocked me, discouraged me, excluded me, and tried to prevent me. I always thought you were talking about the “worldly others,” so I stepped out boldly in faith, hoping when those worldly others came for me, you’d have my back, you’d be there to catch me. I never expected that you would be the one to mock me, discourage me, exclude me, and call me names. Shameful. Deceived. Modern-day Eve. Satan’s puppet.

I am a daughter of the Church of Christ, through and through, yet somehow, I am an embarrassment to you, the black sheep you can’t claim as your own. I belong so much that somehow, I don’t belong at all.

Why Your Church Should Offer Adulting Classes

A strange phenomenon has popped up across the country in the last five years: adulting classes. A quick Google search reveals that they’ve become more popular since I first heard about them two years ago. Now there have actually been news write-ups about them, like this CBS article: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/adulting-classes-teach-millennials-basic-skills-like-sewing-cooking-and-how-to-deal-with-relationships/.

If you haven’t heard “adult” used as a verb before, it typically refers to the practice of responsibility, or perhaps more specifically, to the household tasks that comprise the daily life of adults. One might say, “I actually made a meal from scratch today! #adulting.”  This is largely a Millennial (and now Gen Z) phenomenon.

The most substantial reason that young adults don’t know how to “adult” is because they haven’t been taught how. In the early 1900’s and before, parents passed on these skills to their children in a home environment. In the 20’s-30’s, public school became more of the norm, but the schools took on the responsibility of preparing students to be productive citizens. Part of that education included basic “adulting” skills: there were Home Economics and Shop classes. But as the education system has expanded – college became the norm, and now a masters degree – the purpose of middle and high school has increasingly become not to prepare for life, but to prepare for more school. So the more practical aspects of education had to be cut – why waste part of the school day teaching 15-year-olds how to cook, when they could be bulking up their college application resume with AP classes and extracurriculars? Yale doesn’t care if you know how to fix your own car. And Yale certainly won’t teach you to do it, either.

So now we have whole generations of people entering “adulthood” without being equipped for its everyday tasks. In light of this, we’re beginning to see young adults seeking out opportunities to learn basic skills – managing money and balancing a budget, cooking a simple healthy meal, changing a tire or oil, doing laundry or ironing. There are youtube videos and online classes and actual classes hosted by libraries or community centers. Don’t make fun of them for it – no one taught them how, and they’re trying to learn. Be part of the solution.

If churches recognize this need and can organize to fill it, hosting adulting classes is a great opportunity to become involved in your community and mentor young adults. I hesitate to suggest it, even as I write this, because of a very important caveat that needs to be made: this idea is not an “outreach opportunity” in the bait-and-switch method of making them “pay” for the classes by sitting and listening to a “message.” Nor should it be a manipulation strategy to guilt young adults into attending your church. Like meeting any need – running a clothing closet or food pantry, for instance – adulting classes can certainly be exploited for the church’s gain, but should not be. Instead, they should be offered freely, with no expectation of ever seeing the young person again, or pressure on them to come back. Instead, view it simply as a way to offer God’s love to a community.

With that said, here are some reasons your church should consider offering adulting classes:

  • It meets a need in the community that empowers people and enables them to flourish. Adulting classes make young people more confident in their skills, it helps them save money by no longer outsourcing basic skills (i.e. cooking instead of eating out), and helps them to be more well-rounded people who engage in activities that are about making a life, not just making a living.
  • It creates the opportunity for intergenerational relationships to form and flourish. How often do 70-year-olds and 25-year-olds spend time together – or think that the other age group has anything to offer them? Young adults need the mentorship of older adults, and if your church doesn’t have any young people ruffling its feathers with their youthful ideas, it could probably use some (if they attend a cooking class and suggest a way to do it more sustainably, like using reusable grocery bags, listen to them and learn from each other!).
    • Also, the loss of life skills isn’t the only thing that has happened with the evolution of schools. Young people have also lost adult interaction (see Chap Clark, Hurt 2.0). I find that teens are starved to hear from adults, even inexperienced ones like myself: How did you know your spouse was “the one”? Have you ever doubted your faith? How do you parent? They don’t have any guidance for navigating these experiences, and they crave it.
  • It makes the church a welcoming community space. Like Divorce Care and AA and literacy classes, it helps the church be something other than a place of worship. How much did your church spend on its building? Shouldn’t it be used more than once a week? How much did it spend on that industrial kitchen? Shouldn’t it be used more than once a quarter? Make it a place that is inclusive of the community, rather than an exclusive space focused solely on Sunday morning activities.

So, what might it look like for a church to host adulting classes? Ideas can easily be sourced from other spaces that have pioneered this work, but I tend to envision Saturday afternoon classes focused on a different skill every week, or month, or however often they’re hosted. Choose the skills you want to teach (basic sewing to fix a button or hem pants, how to make a vegetable soup, how to change a tire, what credit scores mean) and get congregants involved who know how to do (and teach) those things well. Invite high school students from your church, college students and young professionals from your community. Have a 2-hour workshop, perhaps share a meal, and send them home with resources (a small sewing kit, the recipe you taught, a diagram of what’s under the hood of their car) and maybe even your phone number. As my father-in-law suggested when I first mentioned this, “What about an adopt-a-mom-or-dad hotline – when you need to learn to fix a dripping faucet or a running toilet or a dead lawn mower?” As an overwhelmed Millennial myself, I can’t even imagine how it would make me feel for someone to offer such a thing – to call them if I need help with my car?? Unheard of. (But let me say again, if I found out it was bait-and-switch, I wouldn’t feel loved, and I wouldn’t come back.)

So, the idea is out there, the need is out there, and the opportunity is out there. Go love some young adults.

 

The Reflective Youth Pastor

In one of my recent posts, “Why Your Next Youth Minister Might Should Be a Spiritual Director,” I wrote about the importance of holy listening in youth ministry. In this post, I want to build on that idea by focusing on a specific aspect of holy listening: the neglected practice of reflection.

Busy is a status symbol in our culture; we measure how important we are by how many demands we have on our time, and if we don’t have enough on our plate to look sufficiently important, we manufacture more. And as thoroughly enmeshed in culture as our churches are, ministry has not escaped the pressure of workaholism. In Contemplative Youth Ministry, Mark Yaconelli writes about the pervasive disease that is “anxiety-driven youth ministry.” Youth pastors are always going, going, going, trying to do more, more, more. We feel guilt and shame if we are not constantly doing something. There are more problems with this mindset than I can address in this post – at the very least, our sense of pride and self-reliance rather than faith, and the way in which our anxiety and insecurity is passed down to our workaholic teens – but here I want to focus on just one: a lack of reflection in youth ministry.

In his book The Skillful Teacher, educator Stephen Brookfield writes that over the course of his career, he has become convinced that “the key” and “the essence” of good teaching is evaluation and reflection. This idea is perhaps counter-intuitive and certainly counter-cultural: that the essence of good teaching isn’t what happens in the classroom. It’s what happens when you’re by yourself or reflecting with others, scrutinizing why something didn’t work, reading over student evaluations, remembering a comment or question, reflecting on what your students need, remembering the expressions on their faces that betrayed excitement or anxiety. That is the backbone of teaching, what gives your teaching its substance and heart.

The same is true for ministry: at its heart is the discipline of reflection. If you’re always going and going and going, from one thing to the next, you don’t have time to process. But margins are vital to give you time to reflect on the way your student dropped their eyes when you asked a question, or suddenly became silent. To remember a question someone asked, to dwell on it, to perceive how God is working in their lives. To see relationships that are forming, or falling apart. To mull over a seemingly mundane encounter, holding it like a diamond, turning it over in our minds to see how the light illuminates the facets.

Good ministry requires us first to notice, and second to reflect. And to do that, we need space. We need to rest enough to be attentive enough to notice. We need to take time after every ministry experience to jot down some notes, even if it’s just 5 minutes, even if it’s just a sentence. But how can we do that if, in order to feel like we’re doing “enough” ministry, we’re packing our schedules so tightly we can’t breathe?

It is the assumption of many pastors and many churches that good ministry is characterized by constant activity. Instead, I would dare to propose that good ministry is characterized by thoughtful activity. We can put in 80-hour work weeks, but if it’s not guided by the Spirit, what’s the point? We can pull out all the latest attractional ministry fads, but if we never stop to think about the needs of the actual youth we’re serving, what good is it? We can go from one activity to the next and amaze our congregation with our superhuman energy and productivity rate, but why bother if we haven’t even stopped to consider how our youth are responding? Without the disciplined practice of reflection, youth ministry becomes a lot of frenzied, directionless activity.

So the first step toward becoming a reflective youth pastor is to learn to notice – which in itself requires us to slow down. When we’re not actively engaging our skills of observation, we tend to let moments slip by us and disappear – moments that were full of spiritually formative potential, if only we’d reached out to grasp them. The act of noticing is a spiritual discipline, and we can practice it in two ways. 

First, we can stimulate our powers of observation by actively practicing it – by looking up and taking in the world around us, and by lingering on what catches our gaze: people-watching instead of looking at our phone in line at Starbucks, taking 10 seconds to look at a flower that caught our eye to see it in more detail.

But, second, we also need to practice really noticing and holding on to the moments that happen to us by accident. Moments when something sparks anxiety or joy deep inside you, moments when beauty suddenly arrests you, moments when a student’s split-second facial expression struck you – don’t let them go. Pause to feel them, name them, and hold them in your mind as a treasure trove of opportunities for later reflection.

The next step is to make time for reflection. Determine to do less, and do it better. Schedule time for reflection before and after events. When you come into the office, before you check your email, take a moment to breathe, pray, and allow ministry moments from the past week to come to your mind. Choose one and think it over. What was going on in that moment? Reconstruct the scene. Who was there? What were the sights, sounds, smells? How did you feel? Allow yourself to feel it deeply, even it is sorrow or regret. How was God present in that moment? What can you learn from it? Sometimes there’s something very concrete to learn from these moments, and sometimes we can merely appreciate them, wonder about them, enter into the mystery of them.

After your lunch with a student, build in a 10-minute margin before your next meeting to reflect on how the interaction went. Were there moments you felt tense? Why? Allow yourself to explore that feeling. Was it because you weren’t sure what to say? Because there was an awkward silence? What can you learn about yourself as a minister? Reflect on the young person you met with. What is something they said that you found curious? Don’t let it slip away. Think on it. Pray about it.

In the moments before starting youth group, look around. Who is here? How does the room feel? Who is sitting with whom, and who is sitting alone? In the moments after youth group, when the lights are out and everyone is gone, sit for just five minutes and allow yourself to settle. At what point did people seem the most engaged? At what point did they seem the most distanced?

We have to be making time to ask ourselves these kinds of questions and giving ourselves time to reflect if we want to be thoughtful, engaged youth pastors whose ministry is grounded in a life of prayer and contemplation.

If we can learn to do these things – to learn to notice and to make time – we’ll find that there are unplumbed depths in every ministry encounter, if only we made the effort to explore them. And from those depths comes a wisdom that can shape and guide our ministry in a way anxiety-driven activity can never do.