The Spirituality of Service

Here’s my new post for Immerse Journal’s Immerseblog on the Brother Lawrence and youth ministry as prayer:

When I first began serving as a youth minister, my Christian life had two modes: reflection (prayer, devotional reading, silence, spiritual direction, journaling, receiving, loving God, Mary) and ministry (planning events, leading youth meetings, befriending kids, serving on church committees, tithing, giving, loving others, Martha). Often these two ways of being were separate and distinct. Like Mary and Martha, one part of me spent time sitting at the feet of Jesus listening and learning while the other part of me worked hard to serve the kingdom of God. The longer I worked in youth ministry the more distance grew between these two sides of my spiritual life. Over time this separation caused my more active self to become angry and resentful while my contemplative self became more withdrawn and full of longing.

One of the ways I began to heal the separation between prayer and service, contemplation and action, ministry and devotion, was through encountering the teachings and witness of Brother Lawrence; this humble, seventeenth-century Carmelite opened a way of integrating love of God and love of others into what might be called a “spirituality of service.”

Brother Lawrence, a lay (due to a lack of education) monk, lived a life of obscurity, serving his community as a cook and repairer of sandals. It was only late in his life that his community members began to realize the profound tranquility and wisdom that Lawrence embodied. In his conversations and correspondence with seekers and fellow monks, Lawrence talked about practicing an intimacy with God that was not bound by devotional practices. For Lawrence, what mattered most for nurturing a life with God was not the task or activity one was engaged in as much as the desire or intent behind that activity. Lawrence found that God could be present and available to the human heart in every moment, if one was only willing to be receptive. Thus, for Lawrence, “the time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.”

Lawrence’s method was what he referred to as “the interior glance.” Throughout his day, whether cooking, cleaning floors, or mending sandals, he simply glanced over and noticed God with the eyes of his heart. Like a parent continually aware of the whereabouts of a toddler (whether at church or in a shopping mall), Lawrence sought an open, aware, and prayerful disposition, acknowledging God’s love and nearness in all of his daily activities. This awareness, of course, shifted the attitude and care that Lawrence brought to his work. Mindful of God’s companionship, Lawrence felt a sense of sacredness in cleaning pots and pans, in responding to the needs of his superiors, in sitting with distressed seekers who sought out his kindness. He began to approach each task as a spiritual practice, an opportunity to grow in love and faithfulness.

What Brother Lawrence has taught me is that youth ministry, with all its harried tasks, can be a furnace of transformation. For those of us in ministry, we are not called to grow in Christ through a monastic practice of praying the hours; for youth ministers, our path of spiritual growth includes practices like play, friendship, program administration, and teaching. We’re not called to long hours of contemplative silence; rather, God seeks to shape us through preparing Sunday school lessons, setting up youth rooms, making phone calls, attending sporting events, driving vans, consulting with parents, and caring for homesick kids at camp. For us, these activities contain the same potential for spiritual nourishment and reflection as fasting, silent prayer, and Scripture reading. What matters, what makes these activities transformative, as Brother Lawrence attests, is our attention (becoming aware of God) and intent (a desire to be met and nurtured by God).

What would it mean for us to see youth ministry as our method of spiritual growth? What would it mean for you to walk into a youth event with the expectation that God would use this event to befriend, confront, or even heal you? What would it mean to notice God in all of your tasks and relationships? How would your attitude shift if you saw the youth room as your prayer chapel and the young people you serve as your spiritual guides?

It might cause you to feel different about that one annoying kid—the kid who fidgets in prayer, shouts obnoxious things at other kids, refuses to wear seatbelts in the van, hoards cookies, destroys church furniture, and mocks every moment of vulnerable sharing. What if you were to notice God in the midst of your interactions with this young man? You might sense that this difficult youth is actually a gift; that this young man is drawing out everything unhealed in you so you can turn and offer yourself to God’s mercy. Maybe this young man is inviting you to enlarge your capacity for love and compassion. Maybe this young, unruly soul keeps you humble, keeps you looking to God for help instead of depending solely on your own abilities.

Youth ministry is not just how you serve God; youth ministry is also how God ministers to you. In youth ministry you are being invited to become Mary and Martha, a contemplative in action. This is the spirituality of service, the spirituality of ministry. This is your calling, to stand amidst chattering kids, anxious parents, and disgruntled janitors with a heart that is open, curious, and trusting. This is your spiritual journey, to walk into a youth room and, in the midst of all the noise and activity, turn toward the One who loves you and whisper, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

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