This is the second of a series of posts about how we can take our worship life out into the realm of mission. In our first post, we talked about YMCo’s definition of mission… which is essentially obeying the commandment to “love our neighbor.” And, of course, if we want to love our neighbor we need to know something about our neighbor and the life that they are living.
We also discussed that the first part of worship in many of our churches is typically the Call to Worship. God does the “calling.” We do the responding to that call throughout the rest of the service. Likewise, God is also “doing the calling” for us to engage in acts of mission– throughout the week and throughout our lives. So every time we read a headline, hear a news story, or see a situation where people are in need, we must be attentive to the call that God is making and consider how we will respond to it.
After the Call to Worship, many churches typically have some kind of period that is all about the Adoration of God. It could be a prayer. It could be a song. Whatever form it takes, the content of this time of adoration is centered around who God IS. For example, we might sing classic hymns like “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” or “I Sing The Mighty Power of God,” which talks about many of the great acts of God. Chief among these acts being the creation of the whole world!
Now, if you are truly in awe of what someone has made, you don’t turn around and damage or destroy that creation! Therefore, I’m going to propose that a way we can “mission our worship” when it comes to adoration is to take care of the things that God has made. This includes the environment and all the creatures in it!
What agencies, ministries, and organizations in your community are taking care of the environment? What are the local, national, and international movements in which you or your youth group can participate?
Here are some ideas:
Join in on a local river clean up event.
Start a campaign in your church to get all bulbs changed to CFL or LED.
If your church doesn’t already celebrate Earth Sunday, talk to your worship leaders about offering a special focus that day on caring for what God has made.
Participate in a study regarding pollution emissions in your community, including what kind of fuel sources the local power plant uses, and what percentages of local air pollution are due to vehicles, households, businesses, etc.
Explore what resources your particular denomination offers in the realm of Creation Care.
When we have a mission to care for the creation, we are in turn giving adoration to the Creator!
Next up: Confession of Sin as mission. Stay tuned!
Bill Buchanan is a pastor, father, and husband. He’s the Executive Director of Youth Mission Co, which includes the programs of Asheville Youth Mission, Raleigh Youth Mission, and Memphis Youth Mission. He lives in Asheville, NC.
Last Sunday I had the pleasure of participating in a video call with the youth group of Trinity Presbyterian Church of Fairhope, Alabama. The topic was discussing how we connect our worship life with our lives of Christian service. I very much enjoyed the chat, and it led to some great conversation among the Youth Mission Co staff. The result of this inspiration is a short blog series where we will break down a worship service into its various parts, and then discuss how each part of worship relates to Christian mission. We will also give some examples of how we can “mission our worship” through some simple acts of service.
But before we jump into our first element of worship, here are a few words from us about our own understanding of Christian Mission in today’s context.
Early in the life of the church, a lot of “mission” was synonymous with evangelism. After all, the Jesus Movement was in its infancy, and so the task at hand was preaching the good news and getting folks on board. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19)
Over time, a lot of the work of Christians doing mission out in the world was also related to helping others with their immediate needs and welfare: providing food, healthcare, shelter, education, etc. Sometimes this was done as a “hook” to then guide the recipient into “right beliefs.” Sometimes it was offered with no strings attached, simply putting into action the compassion that Jesus himself showed and that our faith inspires. “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill” and yet you don’t supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith, by istelf, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:15-17)
At Youth Mission Co, we keep our baseline theology of mission pretty simple. When Jesus was asked which commandment was the greatest, he responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and … and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39) Christian mission is about knowing your neighbors, and then acting/living in ways that are loving to them. In fact, loving our neighbors is a way of loving and glorifying God… which is the task of our worship.
With that said, let’s jump into it!!
For many of us, our worship services begin with a Call to Worship. A crucial thing to understand here is WHO is doing the calling. In a literal sense, during our services there is often a pastor or some other worship leader standing at the front leading this part of worship. They say a line that’s printed in the bulletin, and then we repsond back with another line. But what’s really happening here is much more than just some call-response ritual that calls us to order. We believe it is GOD that is calling us together. It is GOD who gathers us in and who desires this community assembly. It is God’s own invitation, God’s call that is the first part of our worship.
How can we “mission” that part of worship? One idea is simply to be more intentional about hearing God’s call to us in our daily lives. If you read the newspaper each morning, read it considering the ways God is calling you to take some action with the things that are covered. For instance, I read an artcile that a local family here in Asheville was recently in a car crash. Is God calling me to offer to bring them food? or maybe contribute to a trust fund for those children? How about when you listen to the news on the radio? Or read a news article online? Or even when you hear announcements each morning at school?
After all, God doesn’t just call us in the first five minutes of a worship service. God is calling us throughout our day, and throughout our whole lives. What are the ways that God is calling you to take action in your community? When God calls, how will you respond?
Bill Buchanan is a pastor, father, spouce, and the Executive Director of Youth Mission Co. He lives in Asheville, NC.
I feel like it’s only appropriate for me to start out by introducing myself. So, Hi! I am Parker Barnes. I am a rising sophomore at Campbell University where I study Communications and Christian Ministry. I found Raleigh Youth Mission when Katherine Blankenship came to Campbell’s connections, which is kinda like chapel, but cooler, and told us about what she does in downtown Raleigh. I immediately knew that I wanted in. I had, just the weekend prior, been talking to my mom about how I had been praying about what God wanted me to do over the summer. I was pretty much a dead tie between interning at a nonprofit and being a camp counselor. So when Katherine gave her talk at connections I knew RYM was for me. I walked my smiling and joy filled self up to the stage and told Katherine with confidence “RYM is what God wants me to do this summer.” Katherine, probably freaked out said, “well the application will be out soon.” And from then on I knew that I would be spending my summer in downtown Raleigh.
I have always been a thinker and so when I went through a difficult time in 2015 I handled that no differently. I thought about it A LOT. I went through a time where I was unsure about the legitimacy of who Jesus was, although I had grown up with both parents working in the Methodist Church. I mean y’all, my parents met in seminary and my first word was “amen,” needless to say, no one ever thought that I would doubt who Jesus was. But I did, just like most people do. I questioned if God was good, if God was for me, if God really was all that people say God is. Yet, through all of this questioning, God was not offended, in fact God used it for his glory and for my good (Oh what a good God we have!). So one day, after a lot of questioning, doubt, and fighting on my own, I asked Jesus to come and help me. And just like that He was there. He said “Parker, you’ve had a rough go of it, how about you hop on my back and I’ll carry you for a while.” And that is exactly what He did. Everything was not perfect in that moment, but everything was different.
Unknown to me, God was beginning to weave a Holy passion in my heart, through my time of darkness. I began to ask bigger questions like “why is there injustice in the world?”, “what does God think about injustice?”, “do I have a responsibility to my fellow brothers and sisters who are being oppressed?” And, as many of us know God answered those questions, without any concern that it was going to turn my life upside down. God was doing all of this at a very interesting time, at an interesting time in our country. I don’t need to tell you that a lot has gone on in our country in the past year, you already know that, and if you don’t, just check Facebook. I began to feel uncomfortable about the way that my brothers and sisters were being treated. I began to acknowledge my privilege, and it did not sit well with me.
The biggest question I began to ask myself was- Why is The Church not doing anything about this injustice? I had read The Bible, I had obviously seen the way Jesus felt about injustice, I was confused why so many people were ignoring it. I was confused and kind of frightened.
This big question lead to a great deal of hopelessness. And think if we are honest a lot of us find ourselves there, concerning injustice in the world. We become immune to it, not because we think it’s okay, but because we think there is nothing we can do about it. The biggest thing that RYM, and the Raleigh community has taught me in general is that there is always something we can do about it.
My first devotion assignment of the summer was Genesis 2:4-9. In this passage the creation story is told in beautiful parable. It goes like this:
“this is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens. Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground- trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and tree of knowledge of good and evil.”
I found myself looking at injustice like there were no shrubs, no plants, no rain and no work being done. I felt hopeless, this is how I felt before I began my own personal mission immersion at RYM.
But then I began my time at RYM and God allowed me to see how God had strategically placed streams along this dead land, to water the whole surface of the ground. God showed me that, in all his mercy, God purposely made Shepherd’s Table soup kitchen so God’s people would not go hungry. God purposely made Ruth Sheets Adult Day Care Ceter, so God’s children would never feel forgotten. God purposely made North Raleigh Ministries, so people would not go naked. God purposely made Healing Transitions so God’s sick children would know that they are never alone. God purposely made Church in the Woods so people could encounter to love of Jesus Christ. God purposely made Oak City Outreach Center so there would be no days where a child of God would not see smiling face. God purposely used and uses all of the agencies to give life to a land that can seem so dry.
And while I began to see God nourish God’s land, even though He had been doing it long before I knew of it. It began to give me new life. God used these strategically placed streams to pick me up out of the dust of hopelessness and breath a life of hope into me.
And even in all of that goodness God was not done. God continues to create, grow and plant new trees that are pleasing to eye and good for food. God continues to plant trees like The Raleigh Center and A Place at The Table. God continues to use the people who have been breathed on to water and grow new and beautiful things.
And what continues to amaze me about God is somehow God is able to hold the tension between the hopelessness and the hope. God still allows us, and validates us when we look at the world and say “this is all dead, I can do nothing good here.” God hears that prayers, and validates that sometimes we feel that way. Yet, at the same time, God rejoices with us when we say “oh the stream are beautiful, and I am so thankful for this breath of life in my nostrils.” God acknowledges that in the middle of the garden, at the core of humanity, there is a tree of life, there is a tree of knowledge of good and there is a tree of knowledge of evil. God doesn’t ask us to blindly hope. Instead God invites us to look at the world and see the good and the evil and to decide that we will not be okay with a barren world, but we want a world full of streams and trees.
I will forever be amazed at a God who trusts flawed people with not only God’s creation, but also God’s children. I am not going to lie to you and say that every day I end the day with shouts of celebration for the beauty of the world. There are days where I come to Katherine’s office and have a million question, most that can’t be answered on this side of heaven. There are days where the only thing that gets me through is throwing a football with my kiddos while listening to my lovely fellow intern, Ben’s, dad jokes. There are days where the only sense of hope I can hold onto is listening to “Quiet” by MILCK. Yet even in these days I remain in awe of the streams and trees that have been planted, and I remember that, as someone who has been breathed into, I cannot waste my breath.
Parker is a student at Campbell University. She was a summer intern at Raleigh Youth Mission.
Last week I had the opportunity to take a group of young people to Church of the Advocate, a regular mission site for AYM throughout the summer. Church of the Advocate is an open-arms congregation, welcoming any and all to come worship, have a meal, and create community with one another. My group and I joined the congregation for worship, and, although most of the service is traditional, part of the sermon includes allowing people in the crowd to share their thoughts on scripture.
Before I go further with the story, I’d like for you to take a moment to visualize what this crowd looked like…physically, emotionally, mentally. The service took place outside in a courtyard. It was completely open, an inviting space for anyone who may be walking down the street. There were people from every walk of life…some live inside, some live outside. Some are healthy, some are sick with mental or physical illness. Some face daily prejudice because of who they are, and some do not. Many of these people are commonly ignored by the everyday tourist-crowd of Asheville because they are, according to most of society, “different” from the rest of us. That being said, for many people in the crowd, this service was the only day this week they had the opportunity to share their opinion with people who care. This led to some interesting and uneasy topics during that day’s worship service, throwing my group off-guard. After everyone had shared, the service soon came to a close, and my group and I had a chance to reflect on what we had experienced.
Overall, the young people and their adult leaders were particularly moved by the fact that people had a place to come be at peace when the rest of their life is often unsteady. However, they all agreed that they didn’t think they would be able to handle all of the different opinions and stories shared from everyone each week; it was overwhelming and hard to relate and connect with people in the short time we were there. Then, someone asked Pastor Vic and I, “How do you keep doing this?”
I was immediately struck by the boldness of this young man’s question. I had never thought about how I do my job in this context, but Pastor Vic had the perfect response, “You show up every week, and you just do it.” As he kept speaking with the group, I hung on to this response, thinking about my experience with relational ministry throughout the summer. I thought back to the first time I had visited Haywood Street Congregation or 12 Baskets or Church of the Advocate, or even when I just stopped to say hello to someone I had met on the street. I remembered how nervous and uncomfortable I was the first time…and the second, and even the third, but Pastor Vic was right- I just kept showing up and doing it, and soon, these folk were becoming my friends.
This experience with my group hit home for me because it was the first time I realized that my experience as an AYM intern is changing me into who I have always wanted to be- I am beginning to become a friend to people who I typically wouldn’t be friends with. I look forward to seeing them throughout my week, and I wonder about them if I don’t run into them. I am working with people, and I am building relationships with them, which is exactly what Youth Mission Co is all about: making the uncomfortable, comfortable.
When we accomplish this goal as an organization, we are able to show young people that they can do this anywhere. They can take the experiences they have meeting people, connecting with people, and relating with people throughout their week with us and leave knowing that when they go back home, they can begin to build relationships with people in their own communities as long as they continue to show up, and just do it!
Sara is a senior at Georgia College and State University. She has been a summer intern at Asheville Youth Mission.
It’s the last week of this summer of Mission Immersion, and on this Tuesday night after program, this group was heading to the Marble Slab to grab some ice cream, and invited my fellow Intern Will, and myself to join. When we walked into the ice cream shop, our adult leader decided to cover the entire group and then the other four people in front of us in line. The first of these was a young man, whom appeared to be in his late teens, early twenties. He had just purchased a cone, and then once he found out it was covered, asked if he could get some ice cream to accompany it, as he only had enough money to get the cone. After receiving his cup of butter pecan, he took a seat at a table under a window, and a few of our youth and an adult sat down and started chatting with him.
As I started to lick the last drops off of my ice cream cone, the adult who had been sitting with the young man came over to Will and I asking if we had pen or paper, and things we could write down where Harry* could find resources. He had just arrived to Asheville about 2 weeks prior, was 21 years old, and living with Bipolar disorder, and had been kicked out by his family. Fortunately, I had just put a notebook and pen in my backpack that morning, and Will sat down and I stood as we talked through where Harry could go. As we listed off places such as Haywood Street Congregation, 12 Baskets Cafe, A Hope Day Shelter, along with street names, services, times, and people for Harry, he continuously pointed up and said “You did this” to God, and consistently thanked us and God for putting us all in the same place at the same time. But there was one thing he said that stuck out for me.
“You know, I haven’t been very good at praying or reading the Bible, but God is still here.”
I’m not going to lie, in that very moment I started sobbing. God loved Harry so much, that he put all of us in each others lives, so we could learn and grow from each other. If there is anything I have learned this summer, it is that there is NOTHING someone can do that can make them undeserving of love, from God or the community.
On Wednesday Night in program, we talk about Psalm 139, in which David talks about how well God knows him. We prompt the kids with a question about how it feels that God knows you so well. A slew of answers comes back with everything from scary to comforting, and I personally identify with the comforting side. The fact that God knows everything about us, yet he still loves us, makes it comforting to know that no matter what you do, God understands and forgives. Harry said it best, that even though he hasn’t always practiced his faith, he still knows and feels that God is with him and loves him. From the time we could talk, we are taught the classic song, “Jesus Loves Me” but it wasn’t until recently that I fully understand the extent to which that love reaches, or the fact that its a two way. God’s love has been visible in so many ways for me this summer. I feel God sitting in song at the bible study with youth after we finish the Free Food Market at the senior opportunity center, in the joy of the children from Children First as they run through a game of sharks and minnows, and in the face of community members as they slurp down a popsicle. But now its our turn to share this love.
I had a conversation with a community member recently, in which she told me how much it means to have some immediately greet her by name when she walks in a room. Something that small could make her feel loved. Its our duty, as God’s children, to make sure everyone feeling his love, and I think that the work that YMCo does is doing just that.
Kate Beeken is a student at the University of Tampa. She is a summer intern at Asheville Youth Mission
The world we live in today is overrun by desires and notions that we must all live the perfect life and have everything figured out. If we mess up then we become outcasts by our peers, our friends, the media, or even society. We are told that not reaching these goals are caused by not working hard enough, not wanting it, that we are lazy, or that we intentionally did it to ourselves. We have turned into a world where egocentrism thrives as a result of this. As a culture, we masquerade in cities where the facades are beautiful but all the while the interiors are crumbling. This is how many of us live our lives, lost in the haze of the mountain just trying to get through another day without falling apart. How then can we find ourselves if we don’t even know where we are?
Each week a new group of youth comes to Asheville wearing these lenses of this world. Many come in with notions that they are here to serve for others and to better the lives of our friends throughout Asheville. At first glance, they see the gardening at Emma Community Gardens, painting at the Veterans Restoration Quarters, or packaging of boxes at Manna Food Bank as ways of helping figure out the lives of the people of Asheville. This is because we see these acts directly affecting the lives of those experiencing homelessness or poverty. We assume that “they” themselves are the ones lost in the haze of the mountains and that “we” have already made it out since maybe we have a little more money, a roof over our heads, or even a car to drive. However, as the days go by each week, I see a change in the young people.
As the youth begin learning the names and the stories of those experiencing homelessness or poverty in Asheville, the youth begin seeing “those people” for who they are: as regular people who are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, and brothers. At the Free Food Market, we run outside of Kairos West Community Center, a mother walked up with her two young kids. She kept telling her kids that this was an outside grocery store so that they did not realize that their mom had to get this free food or they would have not of had a meal that night. My group broke down after hearing this and talking with the lady. They found out that she works just over the max hours for food stamps even though she does not make a living wage for her family. They found out she was a single mother. They found out that because of that she had to move her hours around the times that her kids were at school so that every night she could tuck them in to go to sleep. They found out she is just a regular person, like each of us, stumbling through the haze of life.
At the end of the week, the kids come up to me and say how they realized it is ok to not be perfect and not have everything figured out. It is ok to mess up and that our friends who are experiencing homelessness or poverty are just like us. The kids say they see that they are not the “perfect ones” but are just as flawed as those they have met. Like Shannon at 12 Baskets always says, “We all come to these spaces not just as ‘haves’ giving to others that are ‘have nots.’ However, we are all, each of us, ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.” We all come to these spaces to have our needs filled.” We are all wandering through the haze on the mountain. The only way for us to find our way, in a world that roots against us, is through community. This community, I have learned, must be of different people because that is the only way we can all help each other. We all bring something different to the table as gifts and as needs. This difference can be through race, ethnicity, socio-economic levels, different backgrounds, and even different views on life.
This summer, I have seen our youth, and myself, be transformed by the new culture we are creating. This culture is a community of love where we all recognize each other and realize that we are all in the haze together. This love helps remind us time and time again that we are all the Children of God no matter who you are or where you come from. I have learned we are never alone, and that together as a community we can find our way down the mountain and out of the haze. Now the notions of “having everything together” or “egocentrism” are not the center or a concern of our new community. At the center now is a rejoicing and a passion for each other to live together in harmony and in peace.
Will DeLaney is a student at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC. He is serving as a summer intern at Asheville Youth Mission.
The following is a reflection by an Asheville Youth Mission participant, Cate O’Malley, who came to AYM this summer with her group from Sugar Creek Presbyterian Church in Kettering, Ohio. She shared this with her congregation after returning from Asheville.
So, I’d like to start out with the question “What are you hungry for?” And I don’t mean what do you want for lunch after church today, but what are you HUNGRY for? Like you’ve heard already, one of the work sites we went to was the Lord’s Acre where their motto is “Everybody is hungry for something and everybody has something to give”. Some of us are hungry for new adventures and experiences. Some of us are hungry for assurance and affirmation from others. Some of us are hungry to get out there and serve.
This question was posed during our group reflection time after our first work day, but I didn’t answer because I didn’t know, what AM I hungry for? I had lots of different answers and ideas I thought I could say, but none of them seemed like they were REALLY it. As the week continued, the question kind of went to the back of my mind and I didn’t think about it again too much.
As the week progressed, we learned more about the theme “Spaces”. We learned how people have a 1st space, 2nd space and 3rd space. A person’s first space is like their home and the environment where they live. A person’s second space is their school or their job. Lots of people we met and served during the week didn’t have a first or a second space because they were currently experiencing homelessness and were out of a job. That left them with only their 3rd space, the space where they could feel comfortable and at ease in a life otherwise filled with chaos. For us, our 3rd space might be a bookstore, a café, or a certain coffee shop. But in a lot of cases, these people that we met would be unwelcome at our 3rd spaces. They had their own 3rd spaces on Haywood Street and in 12 Baskets Café. These particular spaces built a community within them by giving out food and welcoming anyone and everyone who came. See how open and welcome people were to share their 3rd spaces with us when that openness was not always reciprocated to them made me kind of wonder, “How is it that I can be so judgmental and not very welcoming sometimes when these people experiencing homelessness, unemployment, and many other social injustices can be so welcoming, and open to share their special spaces with us?” Jesus tells us all the time in Scripture to love one another and welcome each other like in John 13:34 when he says, ‘Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ I think working at ll the different sites we did allowed me to try and put that Bible verse into action.
At the end of our week, I was thinking about all that we had done and all that I had learned when the question “What are you hungry for?” popped back into my head again. After thinking about it a little more, I finally knew what I was hungry for! I’m hungry to create more space! I want to create more space in my busy life where I can slow down and remember how good God is and how thankful I am for all that I’ve been blessed with, because I often forget that. I am hungry to create more space for god to use me and work through me by praying more and reading my Bible more. And finally, seeing how welcomed we were at these peoples’ 3rd spaces made me hungry to create more space in my heart to love everyone and treat everyone with humanity.
I don’t know how much passing out bags of fruit or making friendship bracelets or trying not to fall out of canoes while cleaning up a river has really impacted someone else’s life, but I know it impacted mine. I know more about myself, the passions that God has put on my heart, and the ways in which I can grow my faith. I’m so thankful that I was able to go on this mission immersion experience and I’m already excited for what next year’s will hold.
So, I said that I’m hungry to create more space in my life for God and in my heart, but now I will ask the question one more time…What are you hungry for? To stay on this analogy, once you find what you’re hungry for, whether it’s a desire to be more patient and kind or a hunger to serve more, don’t just stay hungry. Fill yourself up and satisfy your hunger so that you can then go out and help feed others who are hungry for the same thing.
Cate is a junior at Fairmont High School and lives in Kettering, Ohio.
Here is video and spoken word poem written, performed, and produced by one of our Memphis Youth Mission interns. May these words and images inspire all of us to be more welcoming and open to where God is calling us to be.
Courtney Henry is a summer intern at Memphis Youth Mission. She attends Georgia College.
Imagine a whiteboard. A big one, extending far beyond the limits of your sight. Just a big ole blank white board, waiting to be filled in. Zoom out, and see all the whiteboards, exactly the same humongous size as the first, filling up space in a grid of colored marker and explosions of thought on erasable canvas. Whiteboards as far as you can see, with words and symbols and blobs, some with moving pictures, others playing music, some connected by strings of yarn and others covered in sticky notes. And one, off in a corner,blank. A marker sits on the tray, uncapped. But nothing is drawn.
I won’t say I’m used to having all the answers (we all know how feisty faith can be), but in school I can usually sit with a difficult question and find words from a fleshy fold of brain matter somewhere in the cavern that is my skull and speak to the question, providing some form of answer. Sometimes that looks like a lot of external processing (read: talking to walls and other inanimate objects); at others, it’s headphones in and jamming out. Sometimes showers, sometimes bike rides, sometimes staring at pine cones, sometimes lightning-quick flashes of inspiration in class. I’ve even written all over paper on the walls. Even with the tough questions, my brain is running full-speed most of the time, drawing strange connections and ready as often as possible to spit back an answer half-formed of precise thought and half of blob-like shapes and colors. As you can imagine, whiteboards fill up fast that way.
I thrive on extended metaphor. My favorite way to write is to take a metaphor and meditate on it, pursuing the fleeting images wherever they might lead me, capturing their essence in a free-flowing dialogue of pen and paper. The idea leads me; I do not control it. I think this is why I see connections well, why I see whole systems and individual moving parts, why a peculiar song lyric reminds me of a movie which in turn draws me to a book or a story of my grandfather’s. I’m willing to let things go where they will, to spread and adapt and change to the day, the space, the mood. Rarely is there something that leaves me entirely speechless, without existing connections to draw on or thoughts to explore. I know I’m young, and there is certainly a lot out there that is unfamiliar to me firsthand. But we understand the unknown via the known–we incorporate new knowledge in the context of older experience. In other words, we as human beings *connect*. Everything is a network of emotional memory and half-remembered facts and midnight-snack-induced dreams. So when something doesn’t immediately become a new branch of my worldview, I am reminded of how much I don’t know and how difficult some experiences can be to incorporate. And that can be breath-taking.
Imagine then, my spiritual journey in Raleigh this summer. I am confronted daily (thanks to my boss, Katherine, our agencies, and our community members) with issues that leave me at a loss for words, poetic or otherwise. Often, I am simply pensive, leaving the office concerned that I am “broken.” I reflect and wonder and wait and throw spaghetti-thoughts at the wall, and it seems like nothing sticks. For someone generally ready to reply, someone like me, it can be frustrating. At first, it’s just a reminder that I ought to pause before responding and organize my thoughts. Then, it begins to feel like I’m searching a haystack for a needle. And after a while, the void really starts to feel empty, as words like “toxic masculinity” and “welcoming spaces” bounce around without company in the walls of my skull. My whiteboards of ideas and thoughts and connections have remained mysteriously, frustratingly, quietly blank. And not for lack of trying–we are pushed constantly to reflect on difficult experiences, to ask the hard, deep questions, to find words in the deep dark void that we call ourselves. And sometimes all we can do is sit and say, “I don’t know.”
Before this summer started, I would have said that it’s alright to admit to not knowing, that I’ve done it before and that I was comfortable not having all the answers. And on some level, that was true: I don’t mind not knowing what dinner would be, what class would look like in a few months, or what life would bring in just a few short, sweet years. But I never realized I wouldn’t be comfortable drawing a blank when faced with tougher questions of who we are and who we are called to be, of where I might be welcome and where I might not be, of just what social justice issues might look like. I sit and sit and sit and wait, staring at the inner-most recesses of my brain, repeating the words over and over to myself, hoping desperately for a bolt of connection, for anything I can draw on as background, for even a solar wind to stir the cosmic tides and shift my perspective. And that lonely little whiteboard, it just sits with me. Waiting on me to pick up the marker and write *something*. It sits, blank. And so I sit, uncomfortable, pensive, deep in the trenches of my brain, but unable to fight off the pressing silence of thought.
And pre-summer me is almost right: it *is* alright to not know. It’s needed and necessary and important and *healthy*. When was the last time I really found myself speechless before I started at RYM? When did I last find myself wrestling with some big question and unable to formulate the beginning of a response? When last did I sit, wordless in the face of the universe, struggling against silence and open to the possibility that it is beyond me? But I am not *comfortable* with it–it is intentionally uncomfortable space, space in which we push ourselves to the limits and find that, with all barriers removed, we don’t know which direction to go in. That confusion, that lack of direction, *that* is our struggle with the unknown, with the deeper questions of faith in a modern setting. What are we going to do?
I reflect on our theme for the summer of 2017, and I am reminded that even as we are looking at creating space in our communities, we should also look inwards. We should explore how we create internal space to wrestle and struggle and be *wrong*, how we can as a community open up that space to asking tough questions. We should make sure that, amidst a sea of busy thought and faithful action, in a storm of colors and blobs and sticky notes, we leave open in a corner a whiteboard, blank. Empty. Silent.
David (Ben) Knoble is a summer intern at Raleigh Youth Mission. He attends the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
There is a certain amount of times a person can be asked “What exactly are we doing today?” before they become comfortable with not always having a concrete answer. In a position of leadership (at least for me), the ideal circumstance is knowing exactly how the day is going to go. I’ve grown up wanting to know the day-by-day itinerary for every mission trip, every family vacation, and every other adventure I’ve ever been on. It’s comforting to feel like I’m in control of every detail of what I’m doing. However, over the past month of work with AYM, I have had to let go of some of those tendencies.
In general, our schedule is largely the same every week. Arrival on Sunday, worksites Monday through Wednesday, neighborhood walk on Thursday, and worship/goodbyes on Friday. It’s a very systematic routine to get into, and it feels good to go through some of the same motions enough to create muscle memory. However, as my high school choir director always said, “Details make the difference.” It is in the details of each day that make them exciting, but also a little stressful. I had to learn to appreciate the opportunity for flexibility and learning when reality doesn’t end up matching with how I imagined the day. My coworkers and I have enough experience to know what is typical at each worksite we bring our young people to, but non-profit work doesn’t have squared-off edges and doesn’t fit into a box. We don’t know who we’ll meet, what conversations we’ll have, or what particular tasks will need doing. Maybe we’ll blow through a day’s work in an hour and other meaningful activities need to be figured out. Maybe we’ll skip going to our scheduled lunch site because we’re having such a great time in a garden. Maybe we’ll meet a neighbor who causes us to think differently about an issue. There is always a plan, but there is also a lot of wiggle room that I had to quickly get comfortable with.
I feel like this is reflective of experiences with faith. I grew up in the church; I went to Sunday school, I was confirmed in 8th grade, and I was an elder on my church’s Session my senior year. On paper, it looks like a fairly systematic routine, but there was more than a little bit of wiggle room. Throughout my whole life, I have struggled with not having everything about faith “figured out”. It has been a roller coaster of ups and downs, twists and turns, and everything in between. I’ve always had this image of an “ideal Christian” in my head that I’ve never been able to live up to. Before this summer started, I was scared that maybe I wasn’t the right person for this job, that someone else should lead young people on their mission of service and spirituality, because I didn’t feel like enough.
Faith, though, doesn’t have squared-off edges either. It doesn’t fit into a box. It’s a journey that isn’t meant to be completely understood, no matter how much my type A personality wants it to be. When my young people ask me “What exactly are we doing today?”, I ask them to be comfortable with my occasional “We’ll see when we get there!” In turn, I’m learning to be comfortable with my relationship with God being malleable as I get older, changing as any relationship would. I’m learning to be more trusting in my faith, that I don’t have to have everything “figured out” to be worthy.
What will we be cleaning the next time we go to A Hope Day Shelter? What meal will we be helping to prepare at Haywood Street Congregation? What vegetables will need harvesting at The Lord’s Acre? Where will our personal faith journeys take us and what will they feel like tomorrow, next week, or in three years? Well…we’ll see when we get there.
Naomi is a student at James Madison University. She is a summer intern at Asheville Youth Mission