A R.E.A.L. Approach to Helping Teens Engage a Culture of Fear

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We all have a moment in our lives when our innocence is lost, when we come to see that the world is sometimes a dangerous and fearful place. The sad reality is that we live in a culture of fear and personal pain that comes from human sin and selfishness. Over the years as a Christian youth minister, I witnessed many times the suffering experienced by teens who had lost their innocence through abuse, bullying, and family trauma. Too many of these young people chose to turn this pain inward – engaging in behaviors like drug use, cutting, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation – rather than choosing to engage the broken world in which they lived.

I discovered though a life-long walk with Jesus, that the way to combat this fear is with words and actions that bring healing and hope based on the Word of God, the power of the sign and sacrament, and the foundational principles of the Church.

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My approach to helping teens overcome their life fears is found in the acronym, R.E.A.L. In my relationship with young people, I make a deliberate choice to be Real, Earnest, Available, and Loving. These four life principles help to empower teens to grow in their understanding of how to engage a culture that seeks to hold them in an unhealthy cycle of fear and self-abuse. The beauty in these principles is that they speak not only to what I need to be to the young people, but also to the needs themselves: needs that have been distorted or destroyed by the loss of innocence the young people have suffered, which lie waiting in the depths of their hearts for restoration.

Realness and Identity

I found in my ministry that young people never expected me to be one of them; but they did expect me to understand and accept them where they were. There was, at the core of their spirits, a basic identity beyond current cultural trends I could connect with empathetically. This came because of my own inner struggles and the faith that helped me to walk through them. When the young people sensed that I could see into their hurting hearts, they were more willing to be open to mine. As I responded to their pain with transparency and vulnerability from my own heart, they were able to express both their pain and their inner beauty. My Christian identity and the peace and purpose it brought to my life gave the teens a foundation from which they could seek to grow as well.

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So many teens struggle these days with their identity, particularly with regard to their sexuality and their worth as they try to find a place among their peers. These young people are just coming to terms with what it means to be sexual beings and belong to different societal groups. Given time and support, they are capable of resolving these crucial identity questions. However, because society is so quick to “affirm” their confusion and rubberstamp their feelings, many teens never quite move beyond the views and opinions of others. What is important is to help teens understand that they have an intrinsic worth and a unique character as those who have been created in the image of God. Consider the following:

For you formed my inward parts, you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am wondrously made. Wonderful are your works! You know me right well… (Psalm 139:13-14, RSV2CE)

When teens see that they belong to God, that they are more than the sum of other’s opinions, and that they are part of a Body of believers that loves and supports them, they can begin to fill the empty, God-sized hole in their hearts with hope, and walk their own journeys counter to the culture around them.

Earnest Means Solid, Serious, and Solemn

It was one thing to be real, but my realness had to be grounded in something other than my own ego. I needed to have a sense of myself that mirrored the God I wanted to share with them. Being earnest meant taking my leadership role seriously enough to know who I was in Christ, to share what I believed as a Christian, and to be comfortable in my own skin when it came to living out my faith in the real world. I wanted to embody Paul’s words to Timothy:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15, RSV2CE)

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Teens will be able to face this broken world when we are serious about our relationships with them. An earnest faith is one that takes God’s truth seriously and makes a sincere spiritual investment in the lives of the young people. We must be willing to walk the rocky road of insanity that is adolescence, taking with us an empathetic understanding that has come from our own transformed lives. Rather than being “experts” who have it all together, our goal is to lead the young people to safe and solid places within the Church where God’s Word and wisdom can guide them as they struggle against the falsehood and fallen nature of moral relativism, political correctness, and godless thinking.

Availability is More than Physical Presence

Being available to young people meant going beyond sharing the same space at a youth event. I knew I needed to be emotionally and spiritually present to them as well. They knew they could contact me when they needed help, and that I would always listen openly to their fears and concerns without passing judgment or providing easy answers. It meant being a shoulder to cry on and coach in their corner. I never tried to solve their issues in the sense that I provided a perfect, once-for-all answer to their fears; rather, I gave them a sense of hope by being someone they could always turn to for honest conversation, sincere prayer, and loving support. Grounded in my own faith, I was able to speak truth into their lives. I used as my guide the example of Jesus in John 13 (The Washing of the Disciple’s Feet) and passages such as those below:

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:11, RSV2CE)

 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (Romans 12:15, RSV2CE)

 …and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works… (Hebrews 10:24, RSV2CE)

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Being available means we are willing to sit with young people in those inner places of vulnerability and fear, not as spiritual “bodyguards,” but as those who has been wounded and are still walking the path toward healing. It means letting the teens see our own flaws and struggles as believers, and sharing how Christ has helped us to overcome them. In this way, we provide a foundation upon which to build a relationship with Jesus within the Church. We are to walk with the young people as they tear down walls of fear and division, and be ready to lift them up when they fall. Once teens know they have this support from us and from the God we have made real to them, we can point them to the worship, sacraments, and wisdom of the Church where they will find the strength they need to continue their journeys into adulthood.

Loving is Unconditional

Perhaps the most powerful part of my relationship with the young people was the love I shared with them. In one sense, the other three parts of this approach were wrapped up in how I imparted God’s love through my words and actions. I needed to keep in mind that this love came not from my own strength but from Christ and His Spirit moving in the Church, in order for me to remain focused on the young people and not on my own needs. My love was genuine, earnest in my devotion to their needs, and totally present to them in their journeys toward wholeness and peace. My love worked best when, like the Savior’s love, it was sacrificial, unconditional, and other-focused. As our Lord Himself said:

Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13, RSV2CE)

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Teens can spot false love easily. They will drink in real love – godly love – with great joy. And as they receive love in the context of godly living, personal and communal reconcilation, and the celebration of worship around the Communion table, it will strengthen them to go out into the broken world and stand against the fear and falsehood that tries to break them down. As they are shown the unconditional love and mercy of Christ, the natural beauty and sacrificial spirit that is lies deep within them will feel free to manifest itself in love shown toward others. Rather than reacting to the cruelty of the world with hatred or withdrawal, they will learn to respond to the brokenness of the world with compassion and self-giving.

Remembering the Other God

At the heart of this approach to ministering to young people is imparting the truth that Jesus Christ was the ultimate example of a real, earnest, available, and loving person. It should be our highest priority to show teens that Jesus is the One who can understand their fear and their pain perfectly because He lived a life of perfect love and self-giving. Christian Singer Michael Kelly Blanchard has a beautiful song entitled, “The Other God.” Through his haunting lyrics he sings about how our noble and lofty images of God are broken down when we face our own frailty and the struggles of life. But it is there that we encounter “The Other God,” the One who was broken for us:

Yet humans have a human side that’s both vulnerable and flawed,

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 And when these common traits collide they seek the other God…

                                                ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The other God, the broken One,

Who loves with tears, His broken ones,

And patches years as they come – undone!

The other God, the broken One.

(Michael Kelly Blanchard, “The Other God” – from the album, Good Grief)

As members of the Body of Christ, we have been given a great gift to share with a broken world. That gift is the connectedness we have in our Savior through our fellowship as members of the Church. As we celebrate through sacrament and sacred worship, as we dig deep into the Word, and as we help one another to grow in the faith, we build upon the rock-solid foundation of saints who are joined together in the perfect love we share with Jesus. Let us remember to love those who struggle the most in this broken world: our young people. Let us be real, earnest, available, and loving ministers to them in the name of our Savior; and let us lead them toward heaven by walking with them on this earth in service and solidarity.

Taking a Quiet Time with God: The Necessity of Spiritual Retreat for Spiritual Leaders

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One thing that can be said for certain about a life of pastoral ministry is that it is a busy one. It seems nowadays that those of us in ministry – particularly pastors – are facing greater demands for our time. There is more and more to do and less time in which to do it. Those who shepherd are caught up in a frantic pace of preaching and teaching, visitation and counseling, committee meetings and administrative duties, and a hundred other important tasks that call for our attention.

With all that ministry requires from spiritual leaders, it is often difficult for us to take time for rest and renewal. This fast-paced, media-driven society in which we live has created a false sense of urgency that drives those with a gift for shepherding to feel as though any period of idleness means time lost in ministry. But taking time away from our ministry to spend with the Lord is not idleness. It is actually a vital part of our ministry; and frankly, without it, the underlying power and spirit behind that ministry will diminish and even become counterproductive. Understanding the importance of taking a quiet time for rest, reflection and renewal is crucial if ministry leaders are to remain strong shepherds of those under their care.

Perhaps the biggest reason for taking a quiet time with God is found in the following verse:

“Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:11a)

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This is not some nice thought; it is actually a command. Our Father wants us to come away from the distractions of the world and spend time with Him so that we may take ourselves off the throne of our lives and put Him on it. When we are full of the noise of our own self-importance, we cannot know God in the truest sense. If we place the quotation from the psalm within its context, we see that when the world around us is erupting in chaos and confusion, God commands us to still our souls so that we may see that He is forever sovereign in power and loving in how He unfolds His plans. He desires that we know Him and His will for our lives; and that can never take place until we know what it means to “be still.”

Jesus understood the need to retreat from the world to regroup and enter into deep communication with the Father. He even commanded this of His disciples:

He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat. (Mark 6:31)

The reason so many in ministry struggle with taking time for God is that they have forgotten the real importance of this experience. In order to come to a better understanding of the purposes and benefits of a personal, contemplative time, we have no better example than the Lord Himself. Let us look at the reasons why He took time away from the crowds and the results of those holy encounters with God, to find application for our own lives and ministries.

One of the first such inner retreats Jesus experienced occurred immediately after His baptism in the Jordan by John. In Matthew we read:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1)

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The passage tells us that Jesus was led into the desert, driven by the Spirit to face the Tempter. According to the story, Jesus prepared for His encounter with Satan by a 40-day period of fasting and prayer. The enemy offered Jesus three temptations: to use His power to circumvent God’s will, to put His Father to the test, and to trade His mission of suffering and death for the power and prestige of earthly kingdoms. Each time, Jesus answered Satan with words from Deuteronomy (8:3, 6:13, 6:16). This is significant because it demonstrates Jesus’ faithfulness to the Law and His understanding that He was the fulfillment of that Law. He did not simply pull a few verses out of context to use at the right moment; those Scriptures were His food and drink. Though He was physically hungry, He had a feast of God’s word ever before Him. And this is the first point:

1) A quiet time is a satisfying feast with God.

Like sitting in front of the fire with a cup of tea, a snack and a good book, our quiet time should be a delightful period of indulgence where we take in God’s Word, bask in His care and reflect on the pleasure and power we receive when we get in touch with our Maker. Each morsel of this daily bread should fill us up until there is an abundance left over to share with the world. We are hungry people in the wilderness of this earthly pilgrimage, and we need to be nourished with God’s heavenly manna as we travel toward eternity.

Jesus also spent extended time alone just before making crucial decisions. Luke tells us about this:

In those days he departed to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God. When day came, he called his disciples to himself, and from them he chose Twelve, whom he also named apostles: (Luke 6:12-13)

We can imagine that, rather than going over a list of applicants for positions, Our Lord, with His intimate and perfect knowledge of these men, held each disciple before the Father in prayer, knowing the confusion and fear and trials and suffering each man was to endure. In that time of solitude, Jesus connected so deeply to these men, that understanding who would be chosen and how those choices would be lived out was something that transcended time and presented itself in a moment of joy and determination.

This was the way of the Jesus, the Divine Artist. His bond to the men and mission was so complete, so intricate and so deep, that He could see the colors and shades of the unfolding reality before Him and know just how each man was to fit into God’s holy and eternal plan. And this is our second point:

2) A quiet time is a creative connection to God's purposes and plans.

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Like writers and artists and sculptors who seek a muse, our contemplations connect us to the creative energy of God, allowing us to see life from a broader perspective. As we receive insight from the Word and inspiration from our intimate communication with God, we learn how to paint upon the canvas of life with more brilliant and deliberate strokes, shaping others’ lives, and drawing out what is beautiful and holy from our encounters with the world. This creative response to God’s call comes out of the depth of the intimacy we discover as we let ourselves be shaped by God’s creative Spirit. It is a wonderful experience because we know we are sharing in salvation’s plan and giving delight to our Father in heaven.

Jesus also withdrew from the crowds in moments of death and at turning points in His ministry. Take a look this passage from Matthew: 

…and he had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who took it to her mother. His disciples came and took away the corpse and buried him; and they went and told Jesus. When Jesus heard of it, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns. (Matthew 14:10-13)

It was a time for Jesus to grieve the death of His cousin John and reflect on the part John played in His journey to the cross. But Jesus also understood that this was a pivotal hour – a no turning back moment – in His ministry. And this is our third point:

3) A quiet time gives us the courage to surrender to God’s will.

As believers, we face many “deaths” in our walk with the Lord. In following Jesus day by day there are things we must leave behind and casualties in the battles we fight along the way. It may be a family member or friend who turns away from a moral decision we make. We may face opposition to our plans or persecution from those who find the cross a scandal. Though such times may tempt us to turn back to old ways and safe places, we know that as shepherds and ministers we need to seek solitude so that we may mourn these deaths, releasing them into the care of the One who guides the stars of the universe by His will. As we seek solace in the midst of the uncertainty of change, we can surrender to the sure and future hope that God will work all things out for the good for those whom He has called. In this act of obedience, we find the courage to move forward, hoping those we left behind will someday join us and believing that the sacrifices we make will lead to greater fulfillment and peace. Like Jesus, when we come back to the crowds, we will see them with compassionate eyes and discover ways we may extend our lives into theirs to bring healing and fulfill the plan of God.

This leads us to another time when Jesus sought solitude. Consider the following verses:

After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone. (Matthew 14:23)

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At daybreak, Jesus left and went to a deserted place. The crowds went looking for him, and when they came to him, they tried to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, “To the other towns also I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent.” (Luke 4:42-43) 

These passages represent a two-fold temptation that comes with ministry. One is to believe that our ministry will fall apart without us. The other is to become content with our ministry and fail in helping it grow. This is the temptation of the devil in the wilderness all over again. As Jesus grew more popular, the danger would be to become bogged down in His fame while forgetting His true mission. And this is the temptation we all face as followers of Jesus: to have our eyes fixed on the crown without considering the cross. As leaders, we can become caught up in our popularity and begin to act in our own strength, neglecting God’s greater purposes. And this is the fourth point:

4) A quiet time humbles us and allows us to let go.

It is easy to become caught up in the admiration and accolades of those to whom we minister and begin to think that all we accomplish comes from our own strength. We may also become so protective of our ministry that we fail to allow the Holy Spirit to move in the lives of others. But the reality is that God is the author of our lives and the lives we serve. We may need to allow our fellow believers to falter and fail in order for them to grow. Our tried and true methods of ministry may need a little shaking up every once in a while. Like many pastors who have preached sermons without preparing for them, we need take steps to remind ourselves that we are to rely on God’s provision and power for all that we do. Such humble submission can free us to move into new avenues of ministry, knowing God is on our side.

This kind of faithful surrender, prompted by our solitude and closeness to God, and acted out in the real world, is difficult work. Even Jesus Himself experienced this as shown by the following:

The report about him spread all the more, and great crowds assembled to listen to him and to be cured of their ailments, but he would withdraw to deserted places to pray. (Luke 5:15-16)

Ministry can be physically demanding and emotionally draining. And this is our fifth point:

5) A quiet time recharges our spiritual energies.

Caring for others is not an easy task. Even for those whose spiritual gifts are for service and hospitality, healing and counsel, the stress of shepherding can take a heavy spiritual toll. Introverted leaders are especially vulnerable to becoming burned out by constant contact with the struggles and personal issues of others. And no matter how strong we are or how much we thrive on our work, as we pour ourselves into the lives of others, we spend our spiritual store of grace in building up the Body of Christ. Eventually, we need that quiet time to reestablish our link to our divine lifeline, so that we may tap into the limitless supply of power that God provides. As we draw from the well of God’s Living Water, we find new strength for another day.

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Of course, in addition to spending quiet time alone, there may be times when we join with other ministry leaders to commune with the Father. In the company of close friends, we share our common struggles and insights so that we may come to understand them more fully. Jesus did this with His disciples on the mount of Transfiguration:

After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” (Matthew 17:1-7)

Our communion with God is something that is deeply personal, but at the same time is intimately connected to other believers. This is our sixth point:

6) A quiet time spills over into communal support.

We need to take time to withdraw together with those who share in our ministry in order to see just how much we are bonded with the spirits of our brothers and sisters in leadership. Jesus took Peter, James and John, His three closest disciples, and revealed Himself in a moment of glory. It allowed the Father to affirm His Son’s mission and express His gratitude and approval for what Jesus was doing. We need this as well. There are times when our personal encounters with God spill out into communal praise and fellowship, and later, into communal action with a greater sense of purpose. Taking time away with colleagues helps us to answer crucial questions: Where are we going? What is our purpose? How will we get there? These hours of quiet time together can reconnect us to all that it means to be members of the Body of Christ and help us to affirm and support one another in our common ministry goals.

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There is one final time when Jesus withdrew to commune with His Father, just before the most significant event in His life:

Then they came to a place named Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter, James, and John, and began to be troubled and distressed. Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch.” He advanced a little and fell to the ground and prayed that if it were possible the hour might pass by him; he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.” (Mark 14:32-36)

Here was the hour of trial for our Lord. Here was the moment where everything was on the line. But rather than focusing on Himself and His fears, Jesus brought everything to His Heavenly Father in total submission. He could have turned away from the cross; but a lifetime of communion with the Father had prepared our Lord for this. He was ready to become the sacrificial lamb and to give His life as a ransom for ours. Though this event was happening in a moment in time, all of eternity was present in the powerful prayer that Jesus lifted up to His Father. And this is our seventh and final point:

7) A quiet time gives us supernatural strength for the trials.

As Shepherds, how do we survive our own journey to the cross? How do we come to that place where we can surrender our lives to fulfill our purpose and face the trials that are sure to come? How can we approach the raging waters of hardship and cross our own Jordan River to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of God’s will? We need to embrace Gethsemane. We may close our eyes from exhaustion, we may scatter when the persecution starts, and we may even deny that we know our Lord and fall to our knees and weep bitterly for our failures; but we still need to embrace Gethsemane, for it is there that the real truth of our time with our Father is revealed. It is God who rescues us, who reveals Himself to us, and who joins His very life to ours, so that we may take in the power and purpose of the Holy Spirit and live it out to its fullest measure. 

We need our quiet time to carve out a healing space within us – a refuge of rest and a holy olive press where we can allow the pressure of the Father’s loving hand squeeze out the doubts, the fears, the sins and the falsehoods that are a part of our human condition through Original Sin. We need to sweat out the blood of adversity and draw strength from the light of heaven as we surrender to the great mystery that is ours when we give our lives to Jesus. Consider this one last verse:

Lord, my heart is not proud; nor are my eyes haughty. I do not busy myself with great matters, with things too sublime for me. Rather, I have stilled my soul. Like a weaned child to its mother, weaned is my soul. (Psalm 131:1-2)

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Our Father longs for us to be one with Him – so connected with His Spirit that we share in His glory and His purpose. Our quiet time is meant to remove us from the world so that we may be moved inwardly by God, and in turn, returned to the world ready to take on the tasks to which we have been called. We rest, we surrender, we wrestle, we give, and we receive in this blessed inner chamber of communion with our Maker. Let us cherish these times when we commune with Him in the inner palace of our hearts; and let us bring those blessings back into our ministries so that we may bless others, build the Body of Christ and draw closer to the One who has called us His own.