A colleague and I would set up a table in the student union of the university where we were chaplains and offer to answer religious questions for a dime (the money would go to charity). Often before we could answer the student’s question we asked if he or she was raised in a religious tradition. We did this because we wanted to know the student’s theological starting point. Or more accurately, what in their tradition the student likely misunderstood that lead to their question.
Often the way in which the questions were asked was pointed and even disrespectful. It was a challenge for me to learn that the students’ tone wasn’t the result of malice. Rather it was an awkward attempt to ask a question that outstripped their abilities to formulate. I had to learn, in other words, to hear the concern underneath the tone.
The work of the development psychologist Sharon Parks (see below) has been extraordinarily valuable in helping me coming to an appreciative understanding of how a young person learns to make sense of his or her situation using the tools we provide them (we’ll look more at these tools next week). Parks’s work also has help me understand that what often seems like rebellion or a rejection of the faith, is actually a young person awkward attempt to use the physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and spiritual tools they’ve been given as they struggle to understand themselves and the world around them.
In other words, I’ve had to come to appreciate the struggle young people have with “adulating.” This understanding is important. Without it, I can’t respond with compassion to what are frequently annoying and irritating questions and comments.
(So there’s no mistake, I am unashamed to confess, that after 25+ years of working with middle school, high school and college students, sometimes young people can still get on my nerves!)
Parks has also help me remember me that I’m still learning. Each young person I met represents a new challenge, a new invitation from Christ to understand someone’s situation and to learn more fully what it means to respond with His compassion.
I travel a fair amount for work. This means I’m frequently arriving in a new city with no idea where I am. Thank God, for my GPS! Without it, I’d always be lost!
Being in a place we’ve never been before can be confusing and even frightening. And being in a new place requires that we make an effort to get our bearings.
This isn’t only true geographically. It’s also true for young people as they grow physically, emotionally, cognitively, socially, and spiritually.
Working with young people means working with individuals who are often more or less lost. They’re lost because they are in a place they’ve never been before. And they do what all of us do in similar situations. They look around, they explore, they try to find the boundaries of the situation so they can find their way.
To do all this, they use the tools they’ve been given by their family, the Church and society. Some of these tools are better than others at helping young people find their way in life. But however good the tools are, especially early on, the young person just doesn’t know how to use them!
It’s our calling to help them.