When I began working as a youth director in the church 14 years ago, I had a list of things I thought all youth should know about God. I found curriculum and experiences that helped me check off this rigid list, congratulating myself on graduated seniors that should have this particular list of values. However, one teenage pregnancy, two suicide attempts, and about five years later, I realized that my most important job wasn’t to force God into the lives of youth as much as it was to make space for God in their lives.
The distinction between forcing and creating space is crucial, given that the former is confining and the later freeing. I learned that I didn’t have to talk and direct all of our time together so much as I had to realize that God would work in the lives of these complicated, beautiful creatures in ways that I might not anticipate, prepare for, or structure.
Even the earliest Jewish writers recognized this need to create space for God to work in lives that are full of angst and uncertainty. In Psalm 4, the psalmist notes of God, “You gave me room when I was in distress” (New Revised Standard Version, Psalm 4:1b). I find it curious that the psalmist doesn’t want peace, easy answers, or divine revenge in times of trouble–merely room or space. The Hebrew verb used in this part of the verse, rachav,captures this plea, literally meaning to widen or to broaden this space. Similar uses of rachav can be found in Psalm 25, which the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates, “relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress.” To relieve the troubles of his heart, the psalmist literally asks for a widening of the troubles, a space for the troubles to exist. Relief comes from physically, emotionally, and spiritually broadening rather than focusing on a particular course of action.
I sometimes encounter churches or Christian Education programs in similar spaces of distress. We get ourselves stuck in the familiar patterns of what we know and what speaks to our most active families. We look for ideas and newer curriculums that fit into the structure of our existing programs, buildings, and values (heaven forbid we stop removing children from worship altogether or abandon our sanctuaries to worship in a park). We hope to attract new or lost disciples by redecorating the space we have rather than expanding the space in which we do ministry.
However, God is not so much an interior designer as a carpenter who adds room(s) to accommodate all of God’s creation. This divine expansion is reflected when God gifts the Israelites with the Promised Land. God promises to Moses, “I will cast out nations before you and enlarge your borders” (RSV, Exodus 34:24). Similarly, in Deuteronomy, we are reminded of the promises of God to “enlarge our territories” (NRSV, Deuteronomy 19:8). Once again, rachav is the Hebrew word in these promises of enlargement. Per God, the Israelites will find growth and comfort through this expansion of their space. God promises an expanding land wherein the Israelites may experience the freedom that accompanies the end of slavery and the freedom that accompanies the space to find God anew. We see this pattern of broadening allowing for growth.
The question for our churches, then, is whether it is relevant for us to reflect this expansion of space within our own programmatic, theological, and emotional territories. And if it is relevant, then what would this expansion of space look like? What implications would it have for our programs if, instead of trying to draw people into our way of practicing our faith, we widened our practices to include theirs? How can we give the absent members within our own church community the “space” to find God, while simultaneously maintaining the community spirit and connectivity that is needed to accomplish reconciliation?
Asking questions for which we have no answers is hard. Starting conversations for which we have no clear ending is scary. Giving ourselves permission to experience rachav can be no more comfortable than experiencing vertigo on a high dive. Yet, this is precisely the attitude of exploration that the language of the Israelites suggests.
Recently the church in which I served experienced this rachav during a Sunday morning worship service that our youth led. The youth began preparing for youth Sunday with an unexpectedly emotional meeting during which they discerned that the part of God that seemed the most comforting to them was–ironically–the part of God that suffers.They focused on the passage where Jesus weeps following the death of Lazarus. One of the youth asked if, as part of the worship service, she could share the story with the congregation about when she was raped. As a staff, we talked about this question for quite some time. Could we allow this young woman to share without it seeming sensational? Is there a place for God in a story that is so personal and so devastating? Can we allow this story to be told in a service designed to glorify God when the answer of how God is working in this situation is so uncertain?
Ultimately, we allowed her to tell her story, but we also included a time of anointing in the same service. The young people anointed her and prayed for her ongoing healing and wholeness. Then the youth also anointed anyone in the congregation who asked for it. Members and visitors to our church who did not even know our youth asked for prayers as they told their stories of cancer and chemotherapy, their stories of grief and loss, their own stories of uncertainty and hope. Some of the stories we heard that day were even unknown to our pastoral staff.
We found expansion that day in our stories of brokenness. And–as we find over and over in our faith–we found healing in the community coming together to grieve and to repeat the promises of God to one another again. With this repetition of God’s love, we knew one another more intimately and felt the power of those words laid upon us as a known people. Our youth still seek out those members and friends with whom they prayed that day to check in on what is one of the most powerful demonstrations of the body of Christ I’ve ever experienced. Rachav began with the bravery of a 15-year-old girl and an unexpected story of uncertainty. God was not known through answers or closure, but God was known in the ambiguity that began to echo hope for several in our congregation.
Doodle Harris is the Associate Pastor for Christian Education and Youth at Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. When not conducting nerdy word studies from the Old Testament, she enjoys reading, traveling, and spending time with her newborn twins.