Last Wednesday we launched a new series on the theological foundations of faith with our high school students. For more info about why and what, please visit the last two posts.
Naturally, it makes sense to start with God.
I mentioned to my team how difficult of a topic this one was. How can you define or describe God in one evening, let alone 30 minutes?
Additionally, last semester we made major shifts towards dialog-based group discussions, in place of content-driven lectures.
It seemed to me that doing a series on systematic theology lends itself more to the teacher-oriented atmosphere which I have been moving away from.
So, plenty of time and thought was spent on how to approach this subject in an engaging, interesting, and hopefully powerful way with our students.
Flashback: (not to the 80’s…just a few years back)
As mentioned in my previous post, I found my lesson notes from nine years ago on these same topics.
When I first taught this type of series I was very concerned with getting the “right” information into the minds of my students. I read multiple theology books in preparation.
Remembering back, I believe I spoke for around 40-45 minutes straight on God. Peter Rollins, author of How Not to Speak of God, would probably disagree with my approach back then!
Here was my outline (I tried to find examples or illustrations for each point, but ended up really just verbally spewing out a ton of information and hoping my students could and would understand and remember)
The Pre-existence of God
God’s Universal Revelation
God’s Particular Revelation
The Nature of God
The Attributes of God
I basically gave 5 minute mini lectures from theological courses I had taken and the books I had been reading. Back then, for me, information, not transformation was key.
It mattered more to me what my students believed (or least what they told me they believed) than why they believed and how it impacted their daily lives.
Looking back on that lesson about God I wonder a few things:
1) Did my students actually grasp the content…could they really understand it?
2) Did they even care? – did the lesson and approach come more from me than their journey and needs?
3) How much of the information did they retain?
4) What would they remember about that evening besides me talking for so long?
5) What was I really trying to accomplish anyways?
Being able to look back in reflection benefitted me (and hopefully this current group of students) a great deal this time around.
I began the evening with the realization and public acknowledgement that in truth, we really cannot fully understand God.
Attempts are often made and what happens is people conclude that God is______ and functions like _________ and so forth. (insert your own words)
These attempts in actuality do the opposite of the stated intention.
They limit God and box him into neatly packaged constraints that we can understand (at best) and at worse use to manipulate control our expression or version of God.
How can our finite and limited minds comprehend the indefinable and infinite?
How can our words and language describe the indescribable?
I did not leave it there though.
Just because we cannot understand does not mean that we should not try. The problem is when we actually believe we have arrived and have God figured out (and then write a book on systematizing God!)
God is not an idea to conquer and claim to use.
God is a person to be in relation with. As you grow in that relationship you will come to a greater (though always limited) understanding.
I played an old school song that (truth be told I do not particular favor anymore) seemed fairly appropriate at the time.
Having that as the context for speaking about God, I launched briefly into the question of What God is?
We also addressed the question of whether God is Male or Female. For a great resource, I recommend using this video from Re_Form confirmation by Sparkhouse.
After this we briefly touched on the attributes of God and had students guess what some of the above words meant and how they relate to our experience of God:
all-knowing, all-powerful, fully present, eternal, mysterious, uncontainable, etc…
*Interesting to note that the students were not as concerned about those and were okay with the basic conclusion that God is….God.
I suppose that if you believe in God and believe the stories in the Bible, with those beliefs come many, if not all, of those assumptions about what God can do.
The real interesting, and I think, engaging part was of the evening was discussing Who is God?
We had students use materials to create a very large heart.
We asked them to write in and around words/images/pictures that depict and describe the heart of God
Some included: compassionate, caring, kind, loving, generous, just, fair, merciful, tender, Father, comforting, friend, listener, supportive, faithful
We then discussed the names of God. (which will serve a good launching point for next week!)
A had a student attempt to spell out each name and the group could offer her assistance, but only 3 times!
(she only got one right!)
After we correctly spelled them we defined them together.
Adonai-owner, possessor, master, Lord
Yahweh or Jehovah God IS (and we are NOT….God)
during this time we played the song “Yahweh” by U2 giving students time and space to reflect on the name(s) of God and their experiences and interactions with God as those names.
How do these names reflect our experiences of God? How do these names help us better understand God?
What does it mean to be created in the imago Dei (image of God)?
The “teaching” time ended by giving each student an index card and explaining to them to write one question they have for God.
If you could meet God (like Bruce did in Bruce Almighty) what would you ask him?
I wanted to give freedom for them to think, but did mention that perhaps asking who would win American Idol was not the best idea.
Questions like why did my parents get divorced, what is your plan for my life, will I ever get over my depression, why do you seem so far away…these kind of questions are circulated in our students minds and hearts.
I then encouraged them on the opposite side of the card to write something they would like to say to God…anything on their heart and mind.
In closing, we reminded the group about the reality of God’s presence in our midst and within our prayers (whether spoken, silent, or written)
Those cards could serve as reminders each day that God is in fact listening and we can approach him with whatever is on our mind and heart.
This closing activity was my attempt to get the “idea” of God and make it real and personal to them, hoping in the process not to manipulate.
For this particular evening, instead of then dividing up into small groups to further discuss, we ended our time together with something special.
That night was the last youth group for two of our members. One was moving back to his home in Haiti and the other was moving with her family to North Carolina. We decided to have a time of communal affirmation and blessing for each one.
I reminded that group that God exists in community from before Creation and referred briefly to the Trinity. I also reminded them that we were created to be in community: with God, with each other, and with our world.
When communities are broken it can be a difficult time, however the relationships remain together. Sure, the relationship will naturally look and function differently when someone is physically absent, but at the core, the intimacy and community does not change
What was so cool to see was each member of our group take turns sharing fond memories, what they appreciate or respect, or just affirming our departing students. This actually last 40 minutes (sorry to all the parents waiting outside) We ended in a large circle with those two students in the middle and spoke a prayer of blessing as we lifted them up to God and sent them on their way to the next phase of their journey into the mission of God.
I suppose it was a fitting way to end an evening getting focused on God, for in and through God we have our being and community.
Next week’s topic: Jesus