Are We There Yet?
Maybe you've been there before. You and 14 of your favorite church kids are rolling down the interstate on your way to a camp, service project, or other adventure trip when you hear that popular road-tripping question, “Are we there yet?” Most of us in ministry look forward to those road trips for all of the wonderful memories that come when a van is packed with teenagers and adults on a journey. This summer I was in that packed van, traveling from Texas to Nashville. There's a lot to see on this stretch of highways through east Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee. After two days of driving, we'd gotten lost a couple of times, stopped at a Salvation Army to pick up some work clothes, and taken loads of pictures of the scenery and other funny sightings along the way. Amongst the teens and adults, we began to realize that the van journey is very much like the journey of faith.
I've been in that van so many times before, both as the passenger who's ready to be there and the one that's taking in the wonderful scenery along the way. I've recently found the Christian life to be very much like this van ride. I find myself in a van with many different people, and sometimes too many of them are asking, “Are we there yet?” Sometimes I want to answer, “Where?” Where are we headed that's so much better than where we are? I hear members of my church talking about how they're becoming more spiritual and reaching new levels of spirituality. Am I doing something wrong? Have I missed the exit to the spiritual life? If spirituality is somewhere that they're all heading, is it better than where I am with God today?
The Webster dictionary defines spirituality as “the quality or state of being spiritual.” The same dictionary says that spiritual is “of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spirit.” And, spirit is defined as “soul, or nature of a person.” So what does all of this mean? It seems that we in the church and in youth ministry spend a lot of time talking about helping each other to become more spiritual. If we limit our approaches to fit the Webster definitions, we basically need to teach or model the quality or state of relating to, consisting of, or affecting the nature of a person. So if we want to know how to do this we could go to one of the 6,480,000 hits for spirituality on the Google search engine and see what the best and brightest tell us about how to be more spiritual. It's somewhat interesting to find that so many of us are in the midst of this resurgence in the interest of spirituality. There's far from a shortage of places to investigate spirituality. In fact, walk into any Bible bookstore or Barnes and Noble, and you're likely to find yourself standing in front of a book on spirituality.
Just over three years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Mark Yaconelli for the first time. Mark was just finishing the first phase of his Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project and was searching for congregations who might be interested in participating in the next phase. I was very interested in becoming part of this new movement in youth ministry and was curious as to how it might make me or my students more spiritual. The Yaconelli name had influenced my youth ministry in many ways, but it was much more through the teachings of the father than it was through his son. But this Yaconelli was different; not better, not worse, just different. He talked about being still, about listening, about living a life of prayer, and doing it all with junior high and high school students.
He had come to my church to speak for an Area Assembly of Disciples of Christ churches and agreed to come a night early to lead some youth and adults in some of the prayer practices that he had been teaching in the project. I was very much the skeptic until we gathered for this “prayer.” He invited a small group of adults and high school students to go outside, ask God to go with us, and pay attention to what God might be saying or showing us. After a very long 15 minutes, we all walked silently back into the room and sat down in the circle of chairs. Mark asked us to share what happened with us in the silence. I looked around the room thinking, “Yeah, right. Something happened? To these people? I know these people. They aren't all that spiritual.” And then, from across the room, one of my high school students, Ray, spoke up. He explained how he went outside, found a spot in the parking lot to lie down, and looked into the sky. He described how it felt to realize how very large the universe was and how small he was, yet to know that God was paying attention to him. His sharing that night was transformational for the adults in the room. Ray had an encounter with God that didn't require mood music, tears, or an altar call. Had Ray related to the Spirit? Was he spiritual? Had he practiced spirituality?
As a partner of the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project over these past three years, I have been taught methods of contemplation, practices of spirituality, and new way to pray. I hoped that the things we were learning would deepen my faith and make me more spiritual. It took me a year to realize that I was confusing the spiritual life with the religious life. In a previous YouthWorker Journal interview, Mark explains the difference between being religious and being spiritual:
“We became fragmented—intellect and spirit were compartmentalized. I mean, there was no such word as spirituality before 1880! It's a relatively new word. Because before then, it was just a given that being religious meant you had an active relationship with God. But suddenly religion came to mean belief statements, intellect, and philosophy rather than a way of life. So the word spirituality was needed in order to help us realize that we were missing something.”
It was statements like this that took old understandings of God, faith, and spirituality and created invitations into a new journey of discovering how God is always present in this life. So no longer do I have to decide between belief statements, intellect, and philosophy on one hand, and direct experiences of God on the other—it's both. Attempting to balance the spiritual with the religious has opened my faith into new dimensions. Faith is becoming less a once-and-for-all statement and more of a collection of experiences of God.
As in Webster's definition, relating to or consisting of the Spirit is the true measure of one's spiritual life. One method of recognizing the Spirit at work in our lives is through simply looking back. The Awareness Examen, featured in the book Sleeping with Bread, is a prayer form that invites the participant to look back over a time in their past, asking God to go with them over that experience. In prayer, the person asks that God point out where the Spirit was present in the people and situations of this experience. The person also asks God to help them recognize places where the Spirit was not present. This contemplative practice allows one to recall God's presence in the midst of the ordinary.
In contemplation, we attend to the ordinariness of life, especially to the yearnings of the Holy Spirit at work within each of us. God speaks to us in the Psalms, saying, “Be still and know that I am God.” We're invited to be still so that we might know of God's living Presence inside of us and that we might hear the song that has been put into our hearts. God allows us to hear now so that we might trust later.
There might always be a sense of anxiety in the “in-between.” There's that deep desire in each of us to “get there,” to be in the Presence of God at every moment. But in the midst of theology, doctrine, and philosophies we find ourselves here and not there. God invites us to appreciate the here. God is at work in the present world, allowing us to see little glimpses of the Lord's majesty. The spiritual life is about looking so closely, listening so attentively, and walking so patiently that God's Spirit might dwell in our midst. With God's Spirit informing our intellect, we can, in full faith, stand in the middle of the road praying with Thomas Merton:
“Dear God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself…and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But, I believe this: I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. I hope I have that desire in everything I do. I hope I never do anything apart from that desire. And, I know that if I do this You will lead me by the right road…though I may know nothing about it at the time. Therefore, I will trust You always for though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not be afraid because I know You will never leave me to face my troubles all alone. Amen”
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