A couple years ago I decided to up my writing game by expanding my Internet presence, signing up on a few writers’ sites and posting some of my work for public consumption. I thought it would be a good way for me to network, point others to my website and build a greater following for my writing. I looked forward to getting feedback and interacting with the other writers, but what I didn’t expect to encounter was a whole sub-culture of teen self-expression that dove deeply into the dark regions of depression and self-harm. As I became more involved in the writing sites, the youth minister in me kicked in and I found myself drawn to reach out to those young people with the love of Christ. And so what started out as a way to build my brand turned out to be a winding journey into the thick of this mysterious and intense world of words. It was a true testing of my faith and ministry skills, and I learned a great deal about how the current social media culture has shaped the way teens view and express their identity, their fears and their pain.
The Emotional World of Online Teen Writing…
One of the first things I discovered on these sites was that, along with all the vampire stories and fan fiction and teen romance novels, there was a large percentage of poetry on depression, cutting and emotional brokenness. Here, many teens commiserated with one another over the harshness of their lives. These tender, hurting souls were posting brutally honest commentary about their circumstances, beautiful and often dark poetry describing their pain and despair, and rants that raged against the cruel world around them. I found much of it very difficult to read, not so much because of the pain it described but because of the hopelessness behind that pain. For sure, some of what I was reading was an expression of the emotional drama that all teens experience, the kind that can become overstated for effect. But in truth, much of it spoke to the sad reality that our culture has, in many ways, created a climate of loneliness, abuse, and abandonment in the hearts of young people. For the most part, there was very little hope in the words I was reading, but plenty of validation and camaraderie among these tortured teens. However, this virtual sharing of votes and comments in some sense served to perpetuate the whole cycle despondency as sympathetic replies from kindred souls prompted the teen authors to turn out additional chapters, leading to more comments, leading to further writing – and on and on it went – a catharsis with no real resolution.
Sadder too, was the fact that so many of these teens were writing about their struggles with identity – and especially their sexual identity. I noticed that many of the culturally and politically correct terms had found their way into their posts: bi-sexual, bi-curious, pansexual, gender fluid, gender blind, transgender, and so on. Most of what I read expressed confusion or a call for validation of a particular choice made. There were those who wrote long rants about the intolerance of the rest of the world for the LGBT community, expressed in such a way as to leave any discussion on the subject closed, lest anyone with a different opinion be labeled as a bigot. In the comments on these pages, people applauded the person’s choice without ever addressing the confusion expressed in the words. I thought about how heart-rending it was that the larger issue of the identity of people’s souls was completely ignored.
Trust, not Tracks…
In crafting my evangelistic approach, I determined to employ a gentler touch: building trust rather than passing out tracts, so to speak. Instead of launching into some sort of calculated discourse on biblical principles and Christian virtues, I decided to read through the writing and pray to draw out the deeper meaning behind the words. I looked for the needs behind the anger and the longings behind the tears. I used as my model the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well in John 4:1-42. This woman, ostracized by her village and forced to draw water in the heat of the day, was an individual full of suffering and sorrow. Rather than chastise this adulterous woman, Jesus, the all-knowing, all-loving Savior, chose to engage her in conversation. He offered her living water, though initially, she didn’t fully comprehend the deeper meaning behind His words. But slowly, the One without a bucket or dipper was able to draw up the pain and need from the well of this daughter’s aching heart. Her dialogue went from guarded irritation to awareness of her need; and in the end, she became open to being filled by the Messiah.
As I prayed over the poetry and prose I was reading, I asked for the wisdom to see each person in the same way Christ saw this woman. Through the words, I began to understand what these hearts truly needed. In the pain of rejection, I saw the need for affirmation. In the despair of abuse and bullying I saw the need for the safety of sacrificial love. Self-loathing spoke to the desire for something to fill the emptiness inside. Self-harm served as a desperate cry for the soothing touch of a trusted hand. Each tear and tragic story tugged at my heartstrings, calling me to spill words of healing onto the reply pages of their posts. A vote was not an endorsement of their ideology, but rather a knock at the door of a wounded heart. Each reply was fashioned to speak to individuals where they were. I pointed to the cleverness of their wordplay, the relevance of each metaphor and the unique stylistic choices they had made. But in those replies I also offered a word or two of wisdom, a sliver of humor and hope, and an overture of friendship without judgment. And as each door opened, I bid the Savior to enter with me into each heart I encountered.
A Listening Ear, a Healing Word…
Building trust was a slow process of acknowledging that I understood the pain I witnessed in the words and recognized the beauty deep down in those broken hearts. As I shared with them, first as a writer and then as someone with a gift for healing, I offered words that served as a spiritual balm to sooth the wounds that cut deeper than any razor ever could. I gave understanding rather than approval for behaviors. I never accepted beliefs contrary to my own, but spent time listening to the other person’s thoughts before expressing my own opinions in a gentle and loving way. Each day, when new writing came out, I commented in the same manner as before, but with a little more familiarity from earlier online conversations. This gentle method led to further conversation and openness.
In my ministry work with teen girls I was very familiar with the tragic realities of suicidal depression, cutting, and eating disorders. From years spent with Christian teens I had come to a deeper understanding of the dynamic behind these self-harming behaviors. But here in this asylum of words I gained new insights into the minds of those who struggled in these ways. These young women saw their bodies as detestable canvases upon which to write the sorrowful story of their lives, and they reflected that despair in their writing. Each cut was like a horrid brush stroke on a dark painting, meant to be hidden from misunderstanding eyes. But at the same time, through the poetry, the hidden cuts were displayed in the relative safety of virtual reality. They wrote about their struggles with eating as a slow, sorrowful walk on a path towards a life wasting away with no one to notice or care. As they posted daily of their trials they clung to the words they wrote, hoping their hypnotic power might hold their lives in place for one more day, but at the same time, they saw themselves inching deliberately toward the edge of the abyss.
A Message of Hope and Healing…
My message became simple: You are worthy. You are unique. You are loveable. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. I continued to post daily comments on new writings that came out, and spoke with gentleness and caring in short chats about nothing and everything. Eventually I decided to post my own “dark” poetry, poetry that related to the hurt I saw but presented the love of the Savior as well. I considered that, in order for people to find hope, I needed to move beyond the small circle of trust built around my life and walk with them up the hill of the Skull to the cross. Through my poetic words, I began to introduce these new writing friends to the One who could take the pain and sorrow to Calvary’s tree and free them from their bonds. One such poem that grew out of these interactions and insights was called, “Child of Sorrow.” It spoke of the One who was “cut” for them, upon whose flesh had been written all the sins of the world. Here was the God-Man, who willingly took each bloody stripe of the whip, whose head was crowned with thorns, whose very lifeblood was completely drained in payment for every sin. If anyone could relate to their pain and their struggle, it was this Man of Sorrows. In the poem, a young girl, just like them, took the depths of her despair to the cross:
Child of sorrow, fair of form,
Traveling through the fiercest storm,
Sees within the mirror, image dulled with deepest rage.
Sun will rise, another day,
Wears her mask, her part to play,
Walks the path of death, entrapped within a cruel cage.
No one hears her silent cry,
Now resolved to daily die,
Writes upon her battered flesh the bitter words of hate,
Used, abused, misunderstood,
Underneath a Gothic hood,
Sinks within her demon dream and feels her phantom fate.
Can there be no one who sees,
Or no ears to hear her pleas?
Must she now forever live in silent solitude?
Feels her racing heart retreat,
Waiting for its final beat,
Draws the blade her life of empty aching to conclude.
Wand'ring streets in stinging rain,
Searching now to end the pain,
Falls upon a heavy oaken door and enters in.
Moving past the blessed bath,
Sacred pews and angel's wrath,
Now before the altar table draped in sick'ning sin.
Raises firsts to heaven's throne,
Bringing out her heart of stone,
Rages now before the God who mocks her from above.
Gazes now at tortured King,
On his brow a thorny ring,
Body beaten, sacred stripes to testify of love.
Sees the writing on His skin,
All of our forgiven sin,
Blood poured out in full to set now free our dying race.
Can there be a love so pure,
Or a payment so secure,
That His life should so completely take the sinner's place.
Drops the blade upon the floor,
Her young flesh to cut no more,
For the Savior King's cruel death now fills her weary soul.
Rises now a newborn child,
No longer to be reviled,
Weight of sin now lifted, body, mind and spirit whole.
Looks again upon the cross,
Contemplates Messiah's loss,
All so she could gain a place at heaven's open door.
Tears of joy now freely flow,
To her knees and bending low,
Grateful broken heart now free, her blood to flow no more.
Seeking out the sacred page,
For her mind now to engage,
Deep inside the words of hope, a purpose now to find.
Leaves the sanctuary filled,
Voices silenced, pain now stilled,
Now refreshed, renewed, reborn in body, soul and mind.
Child of sorrow, fair of form,
Having now survived the storm,
Sees within the mirror now the face of love restored.
Sun has risen, new day calls
Moves outside her broken walls,
To a world of hurting souls who need her gentle Lord.
Eventually I began to see subtle changes in the way people responded. They knew someone was listening who understood, who didn’t judge, who didn’t want to run away. Even if they didn’t quite get it, they knew they knew I was praying for them and offering something other than hollow affirmation. Their poetry began to take on a note of hope, especially in the advice they began offering their followers, reminding them to keep on trying and not to give up. They began to write less of their pain and to speak into the lives of others going through the same struggles. In their words I saw reflections of the Savior’s love, slowly piercing through the veil of their pain. They were coming to see that if another person could take the time to walk with them on their journeys, then perhaps this God he believed in might be worth a second look after all. I realized that instead of trying to be a counselor, an advisor, a fixer or a sympathizer, all I really needed to be was a channel for the grace of God. I had entered as a stranger, but without judgment or criticism. I had spoken life into their cutting words and allowed the grace of God to work in heaven’s timing rather than my own.
Now I would be remiss if I left you without saying that as I continue to minister through my writing, I’m not alone in my mission. I have seen other believers on these same sites, sharing the same hope with these hurting souls. Some I would say are better able to break through the barriers because they too are teens, and because they’ve gone through some of the same struggles but have come out on the other side in the arms of their Savior. They too have posted writings of hope and strength for others to read, and have talked and prayed and shared with these struggling teens, offering perhaps more than I ever could. It has been a joy to see how much the grace of God can shine when His children use their gifts and venture out into new worlds, even the virtual kind.
I can only hope that more and more Christians with a gift for words will choose to share their writings with those who are calling out with their broken words for something more. In this age where it’s so easy to connect online, I hope there are more empathetic souls willing to bring the light of Christ’s love into the dark online worlds of these young people and spread the Gospel message of healing and redemption to those who are lost and looking for a refuge of hope!