John was the first to arrive for the lock-in. I asked how he was, and he said he was fine. However, I could tell he wasn’t OK.
In the previous couple of weeks, he had received some very painful news regarding his family. So I asked him, “No, how are you really doing?” John burst into tears and fell into my arms. His heart was broken. My heart was broken for him, and I knew God’s heart was also broken. There was no other place I’d rather be in that moment.
We know that all youth have experienced some form of pain. No human escapes trials. In these deep moments of ministry and pain, we realize how incredible it is that God has called us and allowed us to be a part of the lives of teenagers. We know that ministry is not just this moment, but is the continuing journey alongside youth as they deal with their crises.
In these painful moments, youth invite us into the deep corners of their lives. What you do with this invitation matters. How we speak in these moments and what we speak about matters. Simply showing up matters, too. I believe there is a great model of solidarity ministry that I want to explore with you to help you say yes to the invitation to show up in the lives of hurting youth for the long haul.
God Redeems Our Forsakenness
When I was in seminary, I became deeply drawn toward the work of German theologian Jürgen Moltmann and his understanding of the crucified and suffering God. Moltmann lived in the midst of the Holocaust and wrote, “shattered and broken, the survivors of my generation were returning from camps and hospitals to the lecture room; a theology which did not speak of God in the sight of the one who was abandoned and crucified would have had nothing to say to us then.”1 For Moltmann, an understanding of God as crucified was essential as he searched for God in the midst of the Holocaust.
How do you find God in such unimaginable tragedies? There are no easy answers. Yet, through his experience, Moltmann offered a theology that saw God as crucified. God so deeply entered the human experience that He experienced suffering on a human level. Through Christ, God entered our reality to experience human suffering, loneliness, pain and how it feels to be forsaken.
It’s not only that Christ experienced our pain, but God also experienced it. That is the power of the crucified God according to Moltmann. Our Creator is not distant and without feelings, but ever-present, aware and attuned to our reality. This is because our Creator has experienced our reality.
On the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46). In helping us understand Moltmann’s work, theologian Tony Jones shares that this godforsakenness Jesus felt is a “common human experience” and that God experienced this.2 On the cross, God, through Christ, experienced how it felt to believe as though God has left you. God personally experienced the cry of every person who feels God has abandoned them. Yet God does not stay in the abandonment or forsakenness. Jones shares that God redeems it by joining in solidarity with the oppressed, hurting and marginalized. God redeems it through the resurrection in which we can join Christ and “are raised to new life.”3
God suffered with us. This has profound implications for our practice of ministry. I believe as youth workers we are called to suffer, but more so called to the ministry of solidarity. We are called to stand right in the midst of the painful suffering that our youth face. We must admit this is far from easy, and we can confess that is not something we always want to do. Those are honest and fair things to feel and say. Yet we must look at it from the perspective that it is not about our own comfort or our own feelings about whatever issues youth are facing. The truth is that this is their lived reality, and they experience this pain on a deep level. If we as the called people of God, who reflect the presence of Christ to our youth, fail to stand and cry with them, then what does that say about our understanding of God. If we do not stand with them, then who will?
If we live incarnationally, then we believe God lives through us to reflect the love of Christ who embraces us in the midst of our humanity, and we are beckoned to extend that same love to those whom God has placed under our shepherding.
I believe it is important that we communicate a theology of the suffering God to our youth so they understand that God suffers with them, God cries with them, God experienced the same feelings they do; and the story doesn’t end in pain because there is resurrection and new life in Christ. Coupled with this is the importance of embodying a practice of ministry that lives out solidarity with our youth. If we preach it, we must strive to live it.
Suffering with Students
I’ve had the opportunity to journey through real pain with several of our students. Recently, Frank, one of our students, had gotten into some trouble while his parents were out of town. After they returned from their trip, he continued to spiral downward. He ended up running away from home and got into legal trouble. Every now and then, he’d call the church looking for a place to stay. He could not hold down a job, and going home wasn’t an option. This situation played out for months. There were times my heart was broken and deeply worried for Frank, and there were times I was frustrated about decisions he made. Yet through it all, God continued to call us to not give up on Frank, but to stand with him and journey with him down many difficult roads. Our staff had to suffer with him to show him he was not alone. Our ministry was to point to God’s constant presence and activity in his life by being present with him every step of the way, including when it was exhausting, trying and inconvenient. Eventually, in time and through continual support from several youth leaders, Frank was able to go back home, get a job and work toward finishing high school. He still faces challenges, but the youth leaders continue to journey with him.
Unfortunately, there is no definitive checklist for how to suffer with students. Yet there are practical things we can do to live out this way of theological thinking.
It begins with taking the time to think about your youth, where they are and what is going on in their lives.
Think about the ones who may be hurting right now. Get in touch with one or two of them this week. Take them out for lunch or coffee. Move the conversation beyond surface level and common interests, create a safe space and ask them to be honest and vulnerable, and share your commitment and care for them. Don’t be afraid to push them gently into being open. Honor their voices, stories and perspectives. Encourage them by saying you admire the courage they have for sharing their pain with you. Ask how you can support them, and be there for them for the long haul.
Following through is essential in this aspect of our ministry.
So often with the pain our teenagers face, we cannot have just one conversation about their pain. Moltmann emphasizes God’s solidarity with us. God sticks with us through the messiness in our lives. God does not listen to our prayers once and keep moving. God sticks with us through the mess, mistakes and growth. God sticks with us through our whole journeys. This is solidarity. This is co-suffering. So, if this is the solidarity God shows us through Christ, then how we could reflect anything less to our youth?
This ministry of solidarity looks different for every one of our students.
It might mean you are a mediator in a conversation with a youth and his or her parents as they work toward reconciliation after a painful experience. If a student has been affected by cancer, bullying or suicide, it might mean you help them use his or her voice to advocate for the rights and care of others. Living solidarity theology could mean meeting once a week with a youth to continue processing the pain. What may seem to be a simple weekly meeting can have a profound impact on the student’s life. It could mean you show up in court with a youth for their legal issues or for a family issue. It could be as simple as helping them feel welcome at the church where their past experiences have involved exclusion from church. Or you can cry out to God with them. Sometimes, it means just sitting in silence together, praying deeply in your heart.
Showing up is the most important part of all.
God showed up in our lives through Christ. Jesus continually showed up in the lives of people experiencing pain, hurt, abandonment, isolation and emptiness. We must show up for our youth in the places where they experience pain. Our youth should not have to feel abandonment or isolation. We point them to God. Through our words and actions, we share with our youth that God has not abandoned them.
As youth workers, we represent God to our youth. We can say powerfully, “God will not give up on you; your church will not give up on you; I will not give up on you.” Moltmann offers a lot for us to think about, but more than that he offers a profound theology for the practice of ministry. Moltmann helps us see that God identifies with us. In our pain, we are never alone. God has invited us into the reality of teenagers’ lives. Do not take this lightly. Youth need to know God is with them. What better way to help them know this than by living this out ourselves?
1Moltmann, Jurgen. The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. Print. Pg 1
2Jones, Tony. A Better Atonement: (Kindle Locations 641-642). The JoPa Group. Minneapolis. 2012. Kindle Edition.
3Jones, Tony. A Better Atonement: (Kindle Locations 665-666). The JoPa Group. Minneapolis. 2012. Kindle Edition.