Conversations at the Intersection of Youth Ministry and Spiritual Formation

I’ve been a bit preoccupied lately — working on a series of lessons related to an online Symposium on Spiritual Formation and Youth Ministry via I’ll be joining Lori Richey, lead instructor in the Certification in Youth Ministry program — speaking to the ways that my focus in spiritual formation can inform considerations and best practices in youth ministry.

Schedule for the 2-week, engage-it-at-your-own-pace course will see us:

  • providing overviews of each of the certification programs at BeADisciple
  • taking a few days to spotlight overlapping concerns/foci from each program
  • concluding with a panel discussion and considerations of next steps for those participating

I am excited about this collaborative project. Considering implications for a specific audience (like youth and youth ministry) has helped me to focus my thoughts and presentations. Working with Lori has expanded my understanding of the universe of and the ministry to our youth and those who serve and surround them. I can imagine the benefit of these discussions for a variety of groups: those who are involved in ministries of spiritual formation and/or youth ministry as well as those interested who might be interested in hearing more about the content and focus of these two certification programs.

More information is yours…

    • via this facebook live video (produced a few weeks ago)

Spiritual Formation and Our Journeys Back to the Center That Holds

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.
                                                                                         –William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming

 They are words that seem like they could have been written this week or last, aren’t they?  But these words from Irish poet William Butler Yeats were written 100 years ago – in the early 1920s: a time of real turmoil and disorientation and strife in Europe and around the world.  His was a world and a time very much like ours – marked by uncertainty, a global pandemic, civil and social unrest.

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.

The imagery of his words has a childhood memory coming to mind…

Ever before there were MP3 files and players, ever before there were CDs, ever before there were cassette tapes, ever before there were 8 track tapes, there were 45 records.  (So-called because they needed to be played at 45 revolutions per minute.)

By today’s standards, such a disk should contain a whole album—at least a dozen or two dozen tracks.  But low and behold, all it held was two songs—one on the front and one on the “flip” side.

And then, there’s the big hole in the middle.  It was important when you played a 45 record that you had an adapter or an insert disk which would allow you to properly position the record on the spindle (i.e., the rod, about the size of a pen or pencil, at the center of the record player’s “platter”).

This brings me to my memories—prompted by Yates’ words.  Here, I can remember early experiments with my sister’s record player (when she wasn’t around, of course)– trying to play a record without an adapter or an insert, trying to eyeball the center of the 45 around the spindle.  With the first few rotations of the record, things would play fairly well, but then things would become a little distorted (playing fast on one side and slow on the other).  In time, as the speed of the platter picked up, the distortion would become worse and, eventually, the arm and needle would be thrown off the record.

The message is clear: without a strong enough center (a center that will hold), things can disintegrate (now, there’s a word!) and ultimately derail.

Returning to Yate’s words, I am torn.  Yes, I’d agree: things can and do fall apart.  Yes, at the speed of life, things can and do disintegrate and derail.  But, I find myself countering, there is a center that can hold.  There is an inner core that can sustain us – even as we are thrust into the worst this world can dish out.

Here, the witness of E. Stanley Jones comes to mind:

I was talking to a bishop who had retired.  He was frustrated.  When he was no longer in the limelight of the bishopric, he was frustrated and told me so..  He wanted to know the secret of victorious living.  I told him it was in self-surrender.  The difference was in giving the innermost self to Jesus.  The difference was in the texture of the things that held him.  When the outer strands [of his life] were broken by retirement, the inner strands were not enough to hold him…  Fortunately, with me, surrender to Jesus was the primary thing, and when the outer strands [of my life] were cut by this stroke, my life did not shake…  You see, I need no outer props to hold up my faith for my faith holds me [from within].

Altogether, it offers me still one more metaphor
for defining spiritual formation…
and affirming its essential place in our lives and living:
Spiritual formation is
the graceful journey

of coming back
to the Center that holds.

“Mrs. Doubtfire” Re-Mixed… and the Scary Side of Storytelling

Was introduced to a host of “re-make movie trailers” on Youtube a few years ago. They are the product of what we might call “video photoshopping.” Take a regular movie (say, Mary Poppins, Cinderella, Willie Wonka), excerpt the “right” scenes, string them together. Viola! it’s a whole new creation. With the right bed of music and titles thrown in, a once innocent and wholesome story has become a real horror story!

Case in point: Mrs. Doubtfire. Just look at what one individual has done to this story of a father’s love for his children and his desire to be with them:

Hard to see the original story in it at all, isn’t it?

Amazing, in fact, what can happen to a story if you accentuate some things over others… and inject enough other elements?! A story of love and dedication can be distorted into a nightmare! (And, in some cases out there, the opposite happens – when, e.g., “Silence of the Lambs” and “Schindler’s List” are reframed as comedies!)

For lack of better words, my initial responses to such remakes were “enjoyment” and “appreciation.” (After all, it takes some real creativity and talent to be about such remakes!)  

However, it wasn’t long until I found these first impressions yielding to a stronger sense of disturbance.  And, it goes beyond the dark humor that makes good bad and bad good.  

No, what I found (and find) most upsetting is the way that this kind of editing and morphing of stories is happening all around us—in ways we do not see… and with stories of much greater value and import.  Of course, there’s the media (at both ends of the spectrum, liberal and conservative) and what it does with stories.  

But, here, I am especially thinking of that Story which I consider most Sacred and ultimate: the Love Story revealed in and through the Christian Scriptures. Like Mrs. Doubtfire, it’s a story of a Father who simply wants to be with His children – going to great lengths to do so. Like Cinderella, it’s the story of a soul rising beyond the shaming voices all around – recognizing her true beauty and worth as a Princess. Like Mary Poppins, it’s a story that declares the blessedness of the beasts and the children over and against the material things of this world. But, oh how sad and tragic and disturbing when the Story falls into the wrong hands and hearts and minds—when love is turned into obsession and pursuit is turned into stalking and Heaven becomes Hell!!!

God and Truth dance in a thousand places (and more)!  And we—we who would seek to join that dance and these partners—must be sensitive and careful lest the Song of joy, peace, healing, and life become one of fear, doubt, and fire!

In an “authentic dance” with neighbor and world, it is true: “theirs” (these “others”/”outsiders”) is the burden of joining in—to open their ears and hear the Story and the Song. (We cannot force anything on them as much as we can and must extend – in word and deed – an invitation to them.) But, what chance do they have of really hearing that Story/Invitation and of really wanting to respond to it, if we’re not giving it the fair sounding (and rendering )it deserves and demands through our lives and living!?!

The Parable of the Tiger and the Goats: The Necessity of Spiritual Formation in Personal and Parish Renewal

In a sermon on “The Church’s Search for Identity,”
Bishop Kenneth Carder shares a most compelling metaphor/parable:

The nineteenth-century Hindu philosopher Ramakrishna told a fable about a tiger cub who was separated from his mother and fellow tigers. He was adopted by goats who raised him as if he were a goat. So, instead of roaring with a voice that shook the forest, the tiger bleated softly in sounds heard only by his adopted family. Instead of eating red meat, the tiger grazed on the soft grass and ate bark from tender saplings, which caused him to lack the robust strength characteristic of well-fed tigers. Instead of roaming the lofty peaks and leaping the treacherous mountain crevices, the tiger who thought he was goat roamed the paths of the lowlands. He didn’t know who he was. His only image of himself was taken from the world around him, a world of goats rather than of tigers. He was less than a tiger because he had no understanding of what it meant to be a tiger. He had been cut off from his true identity.  (Carder, Sermons on United Methodist Beliefs, p. 15)

So that no one misses his point, he goes on to conclude – with words that undoubtedly have meaning in any number of denominations and congregational settings:

The church suffers from a similar malady. We have been orphaned by our broken connection with our biblical and theological parentage. Our failure to stay in daily contact with the images of the church as found in the Bible and in historical theology has left us with the inadequate images of the world around us as our models of being and doing. The business world, civic clubs, and social and political organizations have become our patterns. Consequently, the church is treated as an institution among institutions—an organization among many organizations to which we belong, in which we find fellowship, and in which we engage in endless activities.

The result is that we wander around on the smooth, well-worn lowland paths, grazing on tasty but unnourishing pious junk food. No one trembles at our blah messages or pays much attention to our bleating pronouncements. We hear the echo of a distant roar which temporarily strikes a responsive curiosity. We have a vague hunger that is not satisfied by palatable pious platitudes. Occasionally we glimpse a lofty height, or a Christlike image falls momentarily across our path, giving us a nudge to be more than we are as a church. We go through the motions, but our hearts are elsewhere. We know deep down in our souls that there is more to this church thing than going to meetings and promoting an institution. (Ibid)

It’s just one more way of framing
the general ministry of spiritual formation
and our mission of Zoe-Life Explorations:
facilitating discussions and explorations
of those spiritual dynamics and rhythms
by which God equips the Church
(and its leaders and members)
to recover true identity, calling, and voice in Christ!

The Parable of Deadheading

Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away;
and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.
(John 15:2)

If the Scriptures were to be written today, perhaps there would be references to how God would want us to behave in traffic, how to plan our calendars, or how to engage media.  Instead, we have scriptures with references to gathering water, walking on a journey, shepherding, harvesting, tending vines,..

Though many of these images are foreign to our lifestyles, they continue to speak to us millennia later.

Parables – employing everyday scenarios to teach us about God’s desire for our lives and God’s presence in our lives – are genius.  We can creatively extrapolate out the meaningful teachings for today even in ancient writings.  Thank you, Holy Spirit for your companionship in the creative listening!

The gardening practice of deadheading plants, for example, is a task that can speak to each and all of us—if we have ears and hearts to hear.  Most plants that bloom will benefit from careful tending by the gardener.  When deadheading a plant, a gardener snips off spent blooms.  Plants grow, set blooms, bloom, and the bloom turns to seed for the potential for another plant to grow from that seed.  With many of the blooming plants in our landscapes, more blooms are encouraged when plants are dead-headed.  Thereby, a plant is able to expend less energy creating and sustaining a seed head and can divert energy to new growth.

To be sure, it’s a tedious chore.  When deadheading, the gardener has to take care not to nick the wrong stems.  It can be discouraging–where the more you remove, the more you see that needs to be removed.

But, be patient!  In a few weeks, it’s noticeable and can be breath-taking: when the well-tended plant is full of blooms again.

Yes, perhaps in our world today (where gardening is a more popular task than cultivating grapes), Jesus would resort to a parable about dead-heading… and the benefits of a few choice cuts on a rose bush.

To paraphrase and adapt words from Browning:

Earth is crammed with heaven–
and every bush a village of deadheads.
But, only those who have eyes to see
take off their shoes
and ponder the essential prunings.

I wonder what Jesus would deadhead
from my life to benefit my ability to bloom and grow?

posted by Kathy Reiter on April 22, 2021