Thursday, April 3, 2014

Youth Ministry, Wild Geese, and God's Spirit as Uncaged Bird

Celtic Christians have a unique image for the Holy Spirit: the wild goose.

Yep, the honking, flapping, nipping-at-your heels bird who refuses to be tamed has framed the theological imaginations of believers for generations in regions surrounding Ireland and Scotland.

The imagery is spot on and brilliant.

Like a wild goose, God nips at us and provokes us to travel to obscure places as a collection of practitioners of the kingdom unconfined by convention. God’s Spirit, like these obnoxious long-necked creatures, can even be somewhat aggravating and difficult to ignore when pushing us to defy logic and comfort. The nudging of the Divine Presence is not always graceful or welcome either, disrupting our conscience and disturbing our assumptions about what is good, right, just, and biblical.

The Holy Spirit, like our feathered friends, lives in freedom and refuses to be contained and controlled by even the most astute theologian:

"Theology must describe the dynamic interrelationships which make this procession comparable to a bird in flight, in contrast to a caged bird" (Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology)

Still more, beauty is in the flight of these strange birds. They refuse to travel alone and instead fill the skies in gaggles shaped like the letter "V." This provides yet another seemless symbol for individuals and gaggles of God's people who trust the whims of the Spirit as they follow Jesus as the head of rather rambunctious flock.

There have been books, legends, intentional communities, and music festivals developed via the inspiration of the wild goose.*

I have also adopted and extended the metaphor for the youth worker.

That's right, the wild goose is likely a teenager.

Youth frequently gather in clumps, are often dismissed as pesky and somewhat rambunctious, and adults are accustomed to head for cover whenever they see a gaggle of teenagers headed their way.

I am also pretty sure these noisy birds and middle school boys on retreat share a similar fragrance.

Wild Goose by Axe Body Spray.

Youth are also beautiful to witness in flight. Their questions nip at the heels of religious absolutes. Their desires to move to new and uncharted territories challenge settled assumptions about where the church exists in the world. The adolescent desire to take risks and listen to the sounds of their neighbors, including those frequently dismissed as distasteful, causes youth leaders to wonder where we have missed opportunities to love God as we love and give voice to others.

I have been in youth ministry for over a dacade and have had my share of crap thrown my way, another uncouth characteristic of geese. There have been moments when I have cursed under my breath God's strange and beloved creatures and questioned why God made the teenage years last for so long.

I have even pondered fleeing from the presence of youth ministry all together.

Then I watch teenagers soar. I see them spread their wings and follow the Spirit's movement in their lives. I am instantly drawn back into my vocation as though I was just beginning.

Youth ministry is hard, being an adolescent is even harder.

The Holy Spirit is difficult to comprehend, containing God's Spirit is an impossible task.

Still, whenever I follow Jesus alongside some of the youngest members of God's flock, I sense somehow the Holy Spirit is there, in the middle, drawing us closer and closer to what it means to be a part of God's dreams for the world.

Maybe that's because, like God's Spirit, youth are wild geese.

May we never try to tame them, only fly alongside them.



*Consider the Iona Community and the book about their existence, Chasing the Wild Goose. Also, a festival I hope to attend one day, The Wild Goose Festival.

**A great interview from a friend of Westminster, who tells a story about The Wild Goose with shere brilliance:

***Photo above is from the cover of Chasing the Wild Goose.