The Advent season can be particularly hectic for pastors and those serving in youth ministry. In addition to the shopping and social events that we all add to our calendars in December, most of us in ministry take on added pressures of planning extra worship services, rehearsing Christmas pageants, and organizing youth service projects. Even as we are telling everyone else to slow down and focus on the real reason for the season, pastors and youth workers rarely heed their own spiritual advice.
I'm no exception, so it was a real gift to take time off the Sunday after Christmas and attend the little country church of my childhood. Unlike most every other Sunday of the year, I was able to simply sink into the worship experience as a parishioner rather than a pastor. The focus of the morning sermon was on what the preacher called the "still-ness" of Christmas, advocating that we leave behind all the rush and distraction of the holiday season to tune our spirits to the still small voice of God in our lives here and now. Perhaps she was inspired by spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle who writes in his text Stillness Speaks:
The moment you enter the Now with your attention, you realize that life is sacred. There is a sacredness to everything you perceive when you are present. The more you live in the Now, the more you sense the simple yet profound joy of Being and the sacredness of all life.
As we leave behind the hectic schedule of the holidays and begin a new year, how might we help teens slow down long enough to sense the sacred in their own lives? Admittedly, this is not an easy task. When youth aren't being distracted by the immediacy of homework, dating, friends, and the latest cultural trends, they have their attention focused on SATs and college and their hoped-for future careers. Challenging them to set all this aside even for a few moments and focus on the sacred certainly requires practice, on our part and theirs. Fortunately, the Christian faith enjoys a rich history of spiritual practices that are designed to help us experience the "now" and to open ourselves to the still-ness of God.
The Awareness Examen is a particularly meaningful spiritual practice that youth will find accessible and easily adaptable to their everyday lives. Developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits), Ignatian spirituality is deeply incarnational, encouraging one to follow the way of Christ within all the blessings and struggles of real daily life. Just as Jesus spent much time in prayer, Ignatius believed that prayer could be a profound practice for attending to and seeking God's work and presence in the world around us. The Examen is a prayer practice that youth can participate in daily in order to experience "still-ness" and to tune their sensitivities to a God who is not "out there" but right in their midst.
The following is a brief example of this prayer practice adapted particularly for use with teens. I would suggest leading this with a small group:
- Find a quiet place and take some time to center yourselves in silence. When ready, lead the group through the steps of the prayer at a contemplative pace, allowing plenty of time for private reflection.
- Think back over the past day or week as if you were watching a movie of all that happened. Ask yourself: What do I notice? What feelings or thoughts do I associate with the past day or week?
- Think about where you experienced God's presence during this time. One way to help teens explore this idea is to invite them to reflect upon those "God moments" in which they experienced peace, love, joy, compassion, and forgiveness in their interactions with others. Give thanks for these moments.
- Think about where it seemed you were unaware of God's presence during the past day or week. These may have been times of anger or impatience or when we ignored the needs of others. Think about where you resisted God's presence. Ask forgiveness for this shortsightedness.
- Consider where God may be calling you to a new awareness. What challenges might God be calling you to in the new year—at work, at school, in your families, and with your friends and community? In closing, give thanks for the time together and for God's presence within each person.
It's worth noting that spiritual practices such as the Examen are called practices for a reason; it generally takes time and repeated efforts for these spiritual exercises to be impactful. Teens may experience very little the first few times you lead them through the Examen. But the more you practice it together, the greater the possibility that youth will find within this exercise a tool for seeking the sacred within the everydayness of living. Once you've practiced it for some time as group, perhaps encourage your youth to take the Examen on as a daily personal prayer, a way at the end of each busy day to center their thoughts and to rest in the still-ness of God.
Rethinking Youth Ministry is a new weekly column by Brian Kirk at the Mainline Protestant Portal at Patheos.