My good friend and theological colleague, Andrew Root, has a new book out. I was happy to serve as the general editor on this, his latest project, The Promise of Despair: The Way of the Cross as the Way of the Church. It really is a great book, and I’m not just saying that. In it, Andy finds an intersection between Luther’s theologia crucis and the many pockets of despair in our modern existence.
This week, I’m participating in FirstThird, a gathering that is built around a theological conversation between Andy and Kenda Dean. We’re talking about youth ministry, and I think we’re all finding compelling how Andy continues to pound home this idea that God enters where there is brokenness — and he’s not talking about Haiti or Chile. He’s talking about the 14-year-old who is cutting herself, or the 16-year-old who just got dumped by his girlfriend.
One of the phrases that Andy uses repeatedly is “place-sharing,” indicating that the primary role of the the youth pastor is to be there, in an adolescent’s presence, when that kid is suffering and in despair. It reminds me of a powerful passage in Nicholas Wolterstorff’s powerful little book, Lament for a Son,
What do you say to someone who is suffering?…
But please: Don’t say it’s really not so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench. (pp. 33-34)
Kenda, for her part, put her finger on why youth ministry may be just the spot for such place-sharing. “Adolescents,” she said, “are acute human beings.” In other words, she went on, they don’t have all of their defenses built up; “They haven’t had their sharp edges blunted.
The question that nagged the whole group yesterday, however, was how (or if) a youth worker (or anyone, for that matter) puts the name “Jesus” on the comfort that is being offered amidst the despair. That is, does the motivation for the place-sharing need to be articulated in order for the ministry to be truly redemptive, in a Christian sense?
(For a longer taste, you can read an entire chapter of The Promise of Despair at Abingdon’s site.)