A Ministry of the Beloved

October 9th, 2009

Theology seems to be making a comeback in youth ministry these days. Maybe it's the anxiety and spiritual confusion of our time, or maybe it's the graced evolution of our field. Whatever the reason, more and more youth ministers are heading to forums and programs organized by major seminaries to ask the hard questions about their work:

What does God have to do with this anyway? Are the armpit relays and hot topic lessons really faithful to God's mission to young people? What would Jesus do? Is the quoting of Bible verses going to be enough to reach the millennial soul? How do we contend with the saturation bombing of youth culture by digital media that promote the world of cool and the false gods of consumerism? And what about all of this new spirituality stuff? Are candles, labyrinths, and chanting really the answer?

There are no easy answers, and there never have been. St. Anselm once defined theology as “faith seeking understanding,” but theological understanding invites us beyond reason and logic into an experience of the mystery of God's presence and activity in human affairs. It requires a certain humility to even begin to speak of God when confronted with the death of a child or an event like the 9/11 attacks.Even in the everyday world of church and ministry, we have to dig deep to figure out whether any of the activities, programs, and events make sense in the light of biblical teaching and church tradition.

And let's be honest. When we step back and reflect on our ministry, we have to admit that there's a lot that doesn't make sense at all. It's messy and confusing— even when things are going well.

Images of God

That's why theology still matters. The images of God that we bring consciously or unconsciously into our daily work in ministry make a huge difference to us and to the young people we serve. We only have to look at the daily news to see how distorted images of God can fuel religious extremism, violence, and terrorism.

And lest we think this is associated with only one certain world religion, we don't have to look far to find warped Christian theology. Watching footage recently of the terrible school massacre in Beslan, I was intrigued when reporters interviewed a Russian Orthodox priest in the town. Hoping to hear words of peace, healing, and reconciliation, I was shocked when the priest began hissing, “We will kill the enemy. Those who harm us will be punished by God and burn in hell.” So much for the God of love or the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

Like much of religious extremism, both sides in this terrible conflict are driven by a cruel, punishing God who stands on the side of the righteous and seeks only the destruction of the infidel. As Anne Lamott reminds us, however, when heaven's enemies start looking only like ours, we can be pretty sure we've created God in our own image. When we assign someone else to hell, I would add, that's a pretty clear indication we're on that road ourselves.

Contemplative Youth Ministry

Over the past several years, my colleagues and I at the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project have been involved in the formation of youth ministers and their churches in a contemplative approach to ministry. Our mission has been to help them move from anxiety-driven to Spirit-led youth ministry by attending to God's presence, discerning the call of the Holy Spirit, and accompanying young persons on the way of Jesus. We've encouraged our partners to ground their theology in the person of Jesus Christ and his way of unconditional compassion. Theologically, we always look to him as our plumb line in evaluating the integrity and authenticity of our ministry to young people.

More specifically, we've focused on three moments in the life of Jesus that disclose the core meaning and purpose not only of his life and mission but also of ours. These are the moments where Jesus is named, claimed, and sent by the Spirit. To ponder these moments reveals not so much what Jesus would do in any given instance, but who Jesus is at every moment.

In the gospels, it's clear that Jesus is the one who knows himself as the Beloved of God. To understand Jesus as Beloved also provides an invitation to experience ourselves as Beloved. To understand how Jesus reveals to others their true nature as Beloved invites us to reveal to others their deepest identity as Beloved when we minister in his name.

Named as Beloved

The first moment, and in many ways the most important for our theology of youth ministry, is Jesus' experience of being named as Beloved. For us, the synoptic accounts of Jesus' baptism at the Jordan and the words of God addressed to him have become the foundation of our understanding of Christian formation. In Mark's gospel, Jesus' vision as he's coming up out of the water is described in these words: “…he saw heaven being torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'” (1:10b-11)

For us as youth ministers, the inner meaning of this event is what's decisive and even explosive in its implications. It's Jesus' experience of being named and claimed as the beloved Son of God in whom God takes delight. It's the awakening of Jesus to his core identity as the Christ, the Anointed One who's unconditionally beloved and uniquely valuable in the embrace of God. Just as Jesus becomes fully self-aware of his identity as the Christ, we believe that in our baptism we too, as followers of Christ, are invited to gradually shed the false identity of the flesh and to receive the very same anointing as one called to live in the freedom and peace that comes with the power of the Spirit.

If Christ's baptism is considered the prototype of our own, the invitation we hear as youth ministers is to claim for ourselves experientially the healing power of this sacrament that restores us to our deepest and truest identity as beloved of the Father. Secondly, it's a powerful invitation for us to ground our ministry in cooperation with the redemptive power of Christ and the sanctifying power of the Spirit who seeks to liberate young persons from the false identity that can form in their lives and to anoint them with a continuing experience of their own identity as beloved children of God.

The importance of hearing our true name as beloved was brought home to me once in the presence of the great Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town, South Africa. Tutu was addressing our group of senior theological students at Candler School of Theology. He congratulated us for our many years of study and our mastery of disciplines such as systematic theology, biblical studies, and church history. But he told us that as we prepared to minister to others in Christ's name, we had to understand that, in fact, we knew nothing of any great value if we didn't know in our hearts that we were beloved of God.

He went on to tell us that if we knew this name as beloved in the depths of our being, as Christ did, then we would be able to minister in his name and with the power of his Spirit. If we didn't, then all of our learned words would ring hollow and have no real power to change lives. He announced that in the course he was about to teach us, he was simply going to tell us one story after another about how God had revealed this name to him and how God had loved him into the fullness of life and ministry to others.

It struck me that there was nothing sentimental for him in hearing his name spoken as beloved of God. For Desmond Tutu, knowing his name as beloved was the foundation of his whole ministry. It had empowered him to lead his people through one of the most difficult and violent periods of South African history, to help liberate his country from the evil of apartheid, and to foster forgiveness and healing in the aftermath. While we as ministers may never be called to confront evil at this level, I heard this great leader calling us nonetheless to remember who we truly are as God's beloved so that we might also be empowered to reveal this identity to those we serve.

Claimed as Beloved

The second moment we see in the story of Jesus is that of being claimed as God's beloved son. In all of the synoptic gospels we see Jesus, after his baptism, being driven by the Spirit into the desert where he's tempted by Satan for forty days. Satan attempts to distract and divert Jesus' desire for God alone. He attempts to obscure and distort the name given to Jesus at baptism. He tempts Jesus to prove his identity as the Beloved by miracles and spectacles and tries to seduce him with the promise of power.

Those of us in youth ministry know well the struggle with these temptations. Even if we've heard our deepest baptismal name spoken as beloved and have a burning desire to minister out of that name, we're continually exposed to other powers in our world that seek to distract and divert us from our truest identity in Christ.

Media experts now tell us that through television, the Internet, and other forms of advertising we're subject to as many as three thousand marketing messages a day. These messages seek to convey to us who we should be, what we should wear and drive, and how we should measure up to cultural images of success. Even in youth ministry, we're tempted to conform to the ideal images and standards of the “empowered” or “fully-equipped” minister that has all the right qualities and tools. Here again, we're in danger of succumbing to the false naming of the world that tempts us to forget that we're enough because we're Abba's beloved. We slip into a spiritual amnesia that drives us into desperate attempts to earn the love and acceptance of our youth, our pastors, and our churches through professional success in activities, programs, and high-voltage events.

In the temptation story, Jesus reveals to us the way through our own deserts of distraction and doubt. He shows us the necessity of continually returning to the holy, to be reclaimed by the presence and power of God's unconditional love, to hear God say “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1b).

An essential part of being claimed by God is being open to the experience of restoration and healing. After his time of temptation, Jesus receives the healing touch of angels sent to minister to him (Mark 1:13). So too, we in youth ministry need to open ourselves to the healing touch of the Spirit that seeks to salve or anoint those places in us that are broken, restless, and resistant to God's love. This is truly what salvation is all about.

To be claimed or redeemed fully as Beloved means to allow the Spirit to meet us in our fears, our desires, our angers, our lusts, and our blindness. The Christian tradition has always referred to our fallen condition in terms of “sin.” Perhaps the greatest sin, however, is the sin of selfrejection— of refusing to allow oneself to be named and claimed unconditionally as God's beloved.

In order to minister to youth in the name of the Anointed One, we must learn to receive the anointing that frees us to receive God's love—not just once at our baptism but continually, so that we might offer that anointing to others. No matter how often we forget our deepest name as beloved, the Spirit is sent to us to reclaim and heal us of the wounds that drive us into sinful separation from God's love.

As Paul wrote to the Christians in first-century Rome, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God— what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2). Paul is calling Christ's followers not to be deceived by the world, but to be “re-minded” continually of who they are as God's beloved and “re-membered” back into the community of the Beloved so that they might truly know how to minister in that love.

Like the Roman Christians of Paul's era, we as ministers of Christ also need to return and open ourselves to the love that heals and reminds us of who we truly are. When we allow God's grace to heal and claim us as beloved, we receive the fruits of the Spirit that God promises—the fruits of joy, peace, and freedom that are the birthright of those called the children of God (Galatians 5:22).

Sent as Beloved

The third moment in the life of Christ is that of being sent. This moment is found in the fourth chapter of Luke's gospel, where Jesus begins his public ministry by announcing his mission of healing and liberation in his own synagogue in Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…” (Luke 4:18). In this passage, we hear that Jesus, “filled with the power of the Spirit” (v. 14), returns to his own people in Galilee to begin teaching and preaching in their synagogues.

After his experience of being named and claimed as God's Beloved, after his trial and temptation in the desert, he moves naturally and spontaneously towards sharing this good news with others. The Spirit of God is burning in him, sending him to proclaim this good news to his brothers and sisters, to anoint them with the knowledge of their beloved-ness, and free them from the spiritual oppression and blindness that is their condition apart from that powerful awareness of God's love. Having experienced being named and claimed as God's beloved in baptism, we too have felt called and sent in the power of the Spirit to share this good news with and to anoint others—especially our young people. Jean Vanier, the founder of l'Arche communities for the intellectually disabled, once defined love as the capacity we have to reveal the beauty of others to themselves. To reveal others' beauty and giftedness to them is to anoint them in the deepest possible way and liberate them to live the lives of grace, peace, and joy that are their birthrights as God's children. But as we know in ministry, we can never give what we have not received.

To be sent with Christ as ministers of his love means learning the art (as Christ himself did) of continually receiving God's anointing in prayer, Scripture, and the fellowship of believers. It means learning to tune in to what Henri Nouwen called the “inner voice of love” that seeks to reveal our beauty and beloved-ness in God's eyes and that empowers us to reveal that beloved-ness to others.

This is the only purpose of contemplative practices such as lighting candles, walking labyrinths, and entering into silence and solitude. They help us to create space for God in our lives and ministries. They help us to tune into that still, small voice that whispers our hidden name to us. They lead us to the peace of Christ that surpasses all understanding. This peace is the source of true evangelization. As the great Russian monk St. Seraphim of Sarov put it: “If you alone find inner peace, thousands around you will be saved.” When we're in touch with God's joy and peace, then we're like living torches that give off the light and heat of God's compassionate love.

The Way of Christ

To follow Jesus and minister to young persons in his name is to experience what it means to be named, claimed, and sent forth to others as he was in the power of the Spirit. It's to move beyond an anxiety-driven ministry that seeks to prove our worthiness as ministers into the peace and joyful presence that comes from knowing ourselves as ones embraced unconditionally by God's grace. It's to embrace and accompany the young people in our lives who are also searching, often desperately, for their true selves in Christ.

There's nothing wrong with armpit relays and hot topic discussions if they ultimately serve to build relationships with young people that awaken them to their deepest identity as beloved. Programs, activities, and events have a place in this journey of ministry with youth, but what's most essential is the quality of presence that we bring as ministers who know who we are and whose we are in our deepest sense of identity.

When we know this in our marrow, then we can freely trust that we're enough, and that the Spirit of Christ is working in us and through us as we accompany our younger brothers and sisters into the kingdom of heaven that is God's love.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.