Border Crossing: Ministry with Teens

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Luke 24:13-35

When my son was little, on certain spirit-filled August days, he would announce that it was time for “Safari.” He’d place binoculars around neck, don his Australian safari hat, pick up his trusty Peterson’s Guide to Birds and researcher’s pen… Open door and out he’d go to explore the wonders of our backyard. Exotic jungle to him. ½ acre upstate NY suburbia to me. He’d raise the binoculars up high, spying the tippy tops of trees and he’d crawl belly side down on the grass for close inspection of the native ecology.

Then with triumphant pride, he’d march back in to show his finds he had meticulously checked off in his guide Book. Common North American Sparrow. Check. Amazonian Rain Forest Red bellied Parrot. Check. Blessed with imagination he was able to cross the border from our plain backyard to a world rich with possibility.

Today we are invited to cross borders from crucifixion in Jerusalem to resurrection in Emmaus in an adventure with the risen Christ. We are invited to cross generational and cultural borders with teenagers so that our ministry may bear fruit. We are invited to cross into new perspectives, heeding the wisdom of Mark Twain who said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness.”

In our gospel lesson today Jesus walks with two people – Cleopas and a friend – two who I like to imagine are teenagers out on a hike- venturing from their city backyard of Jerusalem out to the burbs- 7 miles west in Emmaus. They need to get up and get away from home in order to figure out who they are. They are a bundle of all sorts of emotions and thoughts and impulses. Curious and confused. They are kinda lost and they kinda know where they are going. Energetic and enthusiastic – and frightened and sad. They need to process what just happened in their lives- the torture and death of their leader Jesus– the sudden ambiguity of once clear and passionate dreams for the future. They are open to direction from whomever and whatever comes across their path. They may be like teenagers you know and love. You may be one of these sojourners. Who will meet our teens on their way?

Today in our text, Jesus meets them precisely where they are and he journeys alongside them as long as it takes for them to find joy and mission for life. He’s like an embedded agent of God – right here with them, immersed in the particulars of their contexts, knowing their fears and aspirations and constantly tapping on the shoulder, hey, follow me, try this path, my yoke is easy, you will find what you seek.

There is plenty of room on the path for adults to companion with Christ and teens. In fact teens are eager for the Church to show up, to enter into their world, to hang out through the thrilling exploring times and to hang in through the sloppy rough times.

There is nothing more exciting to me than walking beside young people and helping them awaken to the Christ already present in their lives. I have the most fun when I get to pick up my Generational passport that is stamped Baby Boomer, and apply for a Visa for Millennial World. If I am trustworthy and respectful and enthusiastic I am granted the Visa, and I get to walk beside young disciples. I get to learn the language and the social norms and the worldview of the OMG Generation , and I get to be an evangelist, a bearer of the good news, no the great news, no the astounding life transforming news – the Oh My God, God is so Good news of Jesus Christ.

Let’s put on our safari hats, get those binoculars out, bust open the doors of the church and go on a journey with teen disciples. Let’s walk together not because we are worried about church membership rolls or the future of a denomination. Let’s go for the joy of it.

In our Emmaus walk story Jesus suggests 3 practices for us Border Crossers in ministry with teens. Let’s take a few minutes to look at Practices of Curiosity. Of Witnessing. Of Action.

First, Curiosity. Jesus is curious here. He goes up to Cleopas and friend, joins them stride for stride, and starts asking them questions. Lovett Weems, expert in Church Leadership, says good leaders ask good questions. Leaders don’t have all the right answers. They ask the right questions. Jesus does this. Hey guys, “What are you talking about? Where are you going? What happened in Jerusalem? Who are you? And he gets them talking.

Be curious about Planet Teenager. I’ve found it helpful when preparing for foreign travel to read some guide books. To take out those binoculars and check out the far horizon, get a lay of the land. As an aging Baby Boomer who grew up with a rotary phone, who thinks a blue tooth is cause for visiting a dentist, and who remembers stores closing on Sundays – Really?- if I want to be relevant, I need to understand the world has changed.

“Who are you?” asks Jesus. With our far horizon vision we see that teens are members of a Generation, often named the “Millennials” in recognition of their coming of age at the turning of the millennium… a generation of people born from about 1982 on.

With generational theorists, notably Neil Howe and William Strauss we observe that they are Optimistic, Plugged in electronically, Global, Team players, Pressured to succeed and yet Sheltered at same time by we famous helicopter parents. They have been raised to know that they are Precious and Special and Unique and at the same time they are inspired to work together for the common good.

Interesting…we see they aren’t so much like my Coming of Age “Question Authority” but they are more like the GI Generation- Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation- civic minded and dedicated to offering their lives to make a difference. In fact Howe and Strauss coin Millennials “the Next Great Generation.”

Astoundingly there are more members of the Millennial Generation than there were people on the planet in 1950. Ten years ago Howe and Strauss called them a “revolution in the waiting” and so we the curious travelers think, hmmm, perhaps this revolution has moved from waiting to coming of age? We note youth -led movements for freedom earlier this year in North Africa: Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Fascinating. Far horizon curiosity. Check.

In our safari ethnography of course we’ll want to get down on our bellies for a close up inspection of indigenous culture. To know the kids in our zip codes. In our congregations. In our mission field. We could do this literally like the time I invented Under Pew Races for our youth group activity. Split into tag teams, see who could crawl on their bellies underneath the pews the fastest. Let me tell you it’s not easy, and I was a handicap to my team. I learned youth are inventive and kind, as the winning team offered to spray themselves with Pledge and race again, to save our sexton the chore of dusting.

I served as a Youth Pastor to a large congregation, 150 teens active, 16 different high schools. We enjoyed sophisticated systems of youth ministry- dedicated youth space, a clearly articulated youth mission that was wholeheartedly supported by the congregation, meals and programs and mission trips and Bible study and procedures and protocol. I led 10 volunteer adult counselors, who were sometimes intimidated by our lists of desired outcomes and purpose statements.

So on occasion I’d say Let’s go over your job description: Love the kids. Can you do that? We are not asking that you be a Bible scholar, we are not insisting on mastery of the egg in the armpit relay game, but can you love them? Do you like teens, just the way they are? Or do they drive you crazy and you want to change them? Sometimes we well-intentioned folks cross borders to fix those kids… Show them how to do and be Church the right way. But we are called to love them, and to love them we must know them.

But it doesn’t stop there. Practice 2: Witnessing. Along the way to Emmaus, Jesus questions, listens, and then he tells them his story. He shares a witness with them. He unpacks traditions of Moses and the Prophets and interprets the events in Jerusalem as an unfolding drama within salvation history.

We are called to cultivate disciples of Jesus Christ. – We don’t cross borders only to learn best practices for building community- We are not just mentors for civic engagement. We are spiritual companions – so that through incarnational witness the very face of Christ can be discerned.

My safari loving son is now 15 and he went on his first mission trip with his youth group this summer, rebuilding Katrina-damaged homes in Biloxi Mississippi. Each day his wonderful youth pastor Rev. Jamie Green engaged in a spirit of inquiry and asked the group, “Where did you see God today?” “Who was the face of Christ for you today?” In the people we served. In the patience and trust I learned. In the love we put into action.

I recall a Teen Mission trip I led to a United Methodist Mission Site in OH. Theme for week “We are the body of Christ.” I wanted kids to engage with the Bible- not as a dusty ancient ideal, but as a living means of grace. I wanted them to EMBODY the Word. So we started tattooing. Each day I had the group tattoo a scripture on a body part. OK, by tattoo I mean semi-permanent marker.

First day, BICEPS: “I can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens me.” Philippians 4. Second day inscribe on your FOOT, “walk humbly with your God” Micah 6. Third day, little more challenging for some- write around BELLY BUTTON from Psalm 139 “ God knit me together in my mother’s womb.” You get the idea.

For service work our large group of 50 was split up into smaller teams. I went with teens to put a new roof on Heather’s house. Heather was a young widow raising two daughters on her own. The poverty of her living conditions was a stark contrast to the suburban blessings of our teens. Heather was covered with tattoos. Now by tattoos I mean the indelible kind. You couldn’t help but notice that some of them were elaborate and colorful and some were simple and incomplete.

Our teens were awkward and uncharacteristically shy. They didn’t know how to start conversation with Heather. And Heather was equally shy. But towards the end of the week, Heather became a border crosser and approached our teens on a water break. “What’s with all those words on your bodies?” she asked. The teen who was struggling with the BELLY BUTTON day gave me one of those withering “you are so embarrassing me” looks that seem to be perfected by youth. Another teen said, “Oh, Robin is teaching us that we are the Body of Christ.”

Heather thought about it a moment, and said, “Hmm, my husband used to say that my body was his canvas.” And she opened up and told us her story. We sat down on the grass and listened. She told us about her husband who died the year before. He had known that he was dying of kidney failure. He was a tattoo artist, and he wanted to teach her the trade so she would have a way to support herself after he died. He was very worried about her. The Drs. would not allow him to get any more tattoos, so he taught her on the canvas of her own body. She pointed to the beautiful ones – he did these, and to the wobbly ones- I learned here. “Each tattoo reminds me of how much he loved me.”

The once embarrassed teen met her in that common place where borders are no more. He extended his hand and showed her the Ephesians inscription of the day “You are God’s handiwork” “Heather, I guess you are God’s handiwork.” They sat and talked a very long time. That evening the teen shared in our devotions – “we are all the hands and feet of Christ. Us on the roof and Heather and her kids inside. I learned so much today.”

We are called to give witness to transforming love of God in Christ.

I want to say a brief word about our Third Practice: Being Active. It’s been embedded all along in our practice of Curiosity as we get to know teens and in the Practice of Witnessing as we imagine effective ways to communicate the gospel.

Cleopas and Friend practice “solvitur ambulando” Latin for “It is solved in the walking,” a practice labyrinth walkers know well. We’ll figure it out by the Doing. They get up and DO the things that Jesus did whether or not they fully understand. In fact – it is only when our two disciples DO precisely what Jesus did- invite a stranger over for dinner- that they recognize who Christ is.

One of the many things teens can teach us is the value of being doers of the Word, not just hearers of the Word. Teens do not sit around a conference table and wait until every system is in place, every contingency in anticipated, and every operations manual is updated. No, they have faith that Christ is going to show up and Christ is going to provide – as long as we are out there walking on the journey. And by the way, won’t it be fun to see how it all happens.

Finally, on another mission trip, this time 11 hr drive to rural Kentucky, our caravan of vehicles labored up, around, and down Appalachian Mountains for miles and miles, no towns in sight. This was REMOTE. We adults were tense from white knuckle driving- trying to focus on the road instead of the precipitous drop off cliff inches from our wheels.

When we finally arrived at our Mission accommodations -2 hours late, hungry, tired, it was pitch dark and raining buckets. One of our vans had been sent ahead to scout out the place. The first person I saw when I arrived was the counselor who had been sent on reconnaissance and she did not look happy. “Robin, I really do not think this is going to work.” I looked around and saw what she meant. We were standing in a coal mine adapted as a bunkhouse, mighty short on the adapting part. I walked ahead a bit by myself, trying to think of something positive to say when the complaints started coming my way. And then a 9th grader, on his very first Mission Trip, came sprinting up to me. Here it comes, I thought. He skidded to a stop, looked me directly in the eye, and said with a big grin, “Robin isn’t this perfect!” and he bolted off again to share in the excitement with his friends.

Friends, we are called to join Christ to companion with young people as they crawl under and tattoo along and run through this holy path of faith formation. We are called to learn from these young disciples even more than we could ever teach. And at the end of the day, let us run back to our friends with enthusiastic witness and proclaim, “Isn’t it perfect!” Thanks be to God. Amen.

~The Rev. Dr. Robin J. Olson, Director of Spiritual Life at Boston University’s School of Theology, Boston, MA; Part of the 2011 Summer Preaching Series, “Evangelism in the Liberal Tradition”

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