Dull and boring.
Does this describe your attempts at spiritually developing kids under your care ? The trick is to take the job seriously, but not too solemnly.
During my first attempt at planting spiritual seeds in the hearts of Scouting youth, I tried to emulate a famous preacher. I got carried away and went way past my allotted five minutes. Warming to the theme, I said, "What more can I say, Scouts?" A loud whisper from the youth said, "How about, Amen?"
I took the hint. At the next Scouts' Own we tried an interactive philosophical discussion. However, I knew I faced an impossible uphill battle after asking, "What is the chief end of man?"
Young Kevin responded hesitantly, "The end with the head on it/"
So I tried another tack and asked, "If I saw a man beating a donkey and stopped him from doing so, what virtue would I be demonstrating?"
With no hint of malice in his voice, Gary said, "Brotherly love?" (I'm still not sure if I should feel insulted).
Was the vital message getting through?
Hardly. Failure came (not unexpectedly) because I took a dry, overly traditional approach to teaching spiritual development -- an effective method two hundred years ago. As well, I didn't use an example familiar to our culture. (Today we use jumbo jets travelling at 900 kph, not plodding donkeys.) If you want to communicate spiritual ideas effectively, thou must use language thine audience understands. Dictionaries label some words "archaic"; let's not earn that title, too.
When I first started out as a leader, I was a bit nervous and easily flustered in unfamiliar spiritual territory. One time when trying to describe the biblical miracle of the loaves and fish, I said, "And they fed five people with five thousand loaves of bread and two thousand fish."
"That's not much of a miracle," said Brian, our quick-witted quartermaster. "I could do that."
So, the next week, I described the miracle again, but correctly: "And they fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish." I smugly turned to young Brian and asked, "Could you do that?"
"No problem," he said. "I'd do it with all the food left over from last week."
How do you teach spiritual truth? Watch for unexpected opportunities, then think hard for a good life application.
Once at camp I saw a group of Scouts circled around a $10 bill like chuck wagons on the prairie. I asked what they wer doing. Arif replied, "We found $10 so we're telling lies. Whoever tells the biggest lie gets to keep the money."
Seizing on what seemed a teachable moment ripe with opportunity for spiritual development, I said, "That's disgraceful! When I was your age I would never have dreamed of telling a lie."
The group looked at each other as if voting, then one Scout reached down disappointedly and gave me the ten dollar bill!
My recovery was less than graceful. I asked the Scouts, "What would you do if you found a bag with a million dollars on the sidewalk?" They struggled with that dilemma for several seconds, then Jack said, "Well, if it belonged to a poor family, I'd return it."
During another camp when we were discussing prayer, I asked one youth if he said his prayers every night. "No," came the reply. "Some nights I don't need anything."
Stark honesty! I could have started into a sermon but instead we spent some excellent time talking about the meaning of prayer -- an important way to maintain and build a relationship with God. (How can you get to know someone without spending time talking? That's prayer.)
I tried hard, but sometimes good intentions were just not enough. Around a campfire two young Scouts offered up these prayers.
What do you do when faced with joking, even irreverent, comments like these? You could get angry, start ranting and correct the behaviour, or you could gently lead them in the right direction. There's a time for everything, even laughing.
Youth aren't the only ones making these mistakes. Not long ago I attended a meeting where the chairman opened with a prayer which begins, "Now I lay me down to sleep..." That's not a good way to start a meeting!
Spiritual development that touches the hearts of youth and kindles a fire for more, takes creativity. It requires real thought and preparation. Spend time at each planning session brainstorming for imaginative ways to connect your kids to healthy spiritual values.
How can you change a favourite Cub game to make an interesting and thought-provoking point? Develop a skit or make up a rap song. Beavers or Cubs might want to build a spiritual theme into a puppet show performance.
Don't talk about God when you're all dressed up during a fomal ceremony and not allowed to smile. Chat about Him when out on a lake during a weekend canoe camp. Ask your Scouts: "Do you think God wants His people to enjoy water fights?" Peace, brotherhood and reconciliation are other excellent themes -- especially in the fall around Yom Kippur and Remembrance Day.
Young people -- just like adults -- have many failings. They're learning how to live with others. The route is seldom arrow-straight, but winds down a road filled with highs, lows and stresses, affected by puberty, divorce, acne, peer pressure and loneliness.
Celebrate their honesty, discuss big problems, but accept their well-intentioned blunders.
Do you see a spark of integrity, gentleness or kindness? Nourish it! Our job doesn't involve making saints. We're here to help youth take one or more significant steps along their journey. Do it with an easy sense of humour.
Colin Wallace is a trainer from Toronto with many virtues.
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