Revisiting a Whiteboard Wednesday experiment, Rick explores five crucial practices that make it possible to “go into the cave” on behalf of students or their parents—five things that give us the foundation to offer real help in times of great trauma, tragedy, or challenge.
Our ability to come alongside students and parents when the worst happens can feel so daunting that it stretches us to the breaking point. It doesn’t take much to feel overwhelmed by the situations we have to step into. For example, there are youth pastors in Santa Fe, Texas this morning who are entering into the horror and grief of another devastating school shooting. And there are youth pastors all over the country who are dealing with students and parents who have PTSD from previous school shootings and acts of violence. Our calling, like the calling of first-responders, is to run toward the darkness, not away from it…
I call this “going into the cave” on behalf of students—the phrase is rooted in a scene from a story that has had profound metaphoric impact on the way I live my life as a follower of Jesus and a pastor to teenagers.
In Peter Jackson’s film version of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King, the king-in-waiting Aragorn responds to the elven Lord Elrond’s challenge—“Put aside the Ranger—become who you were born to be”—and heads off, alone, to travel the abandoned Dimholt road. At the end of that haunted path, he will find the entrance to the mountain tomb of an army host of dead souls—disgraced warriors who will never be at rest until they have reversed their cowardly retreat from battle many centuries before. Aragorn intends to confront these apparitions and compel them to heal their shame by fighting with him and others who stand between the evil and the good. He tries to sneak out of camp without his friends by his side, but the elf Legolas and the dwarf Gimli are not fooled and insist on accompanying their friend into hell. When they arrive at the gates of the dead, their horses are so panicked that they bolt and run. The mouth of the cave smells like death. And Aragorn, turning to his friends, says, “I do not fear death!” and plunges into the darkness, soon followed by the elf and the dwarf.3
This scene is a compelling metaphor for the life Jesus has called us to—we are to “enter into the cave on behalf of others in need of rescue.” That means that everyday youth ministry includes striding into dark caves that smell like death, plunging into the fearful unknown for the sake of others. Our role is to stand between the evil and the good when we are faced by insurmountable odds and hampered by our own weaknesses and wounds. It is a path Jesus has already walked, many times…
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9:35–38 NIV)
In ministry, we are often surrounded by the “harassed and helpless”—young people (and their parents) who desperately need someone to “go into the cave” on their behalf. We never know when we’ll be confronted by the opening of the next dark cave. Our calling is to offer the harassed and helpless a pathway to rescue and hope. Will we go into the dark, and what will happen if we do? How do we enter into dark caves with courage?
- Bring our “non-anxious” presence. More than our words, it’s the calm strength of our presence that brings an anchoring sense of determination, compassion, and redemption into the cave environment.
- Remind ourselves that it’s our dependence and attachment to Jesus that strengthens use in the cave, not our own capabilities. We breathe our dependence and plea for guidance like an unbroken prayer, returning again and again and again to: Jesus, I need you. I need your guidance. I need your words. I need your strength.
- Adopt a conscious boundary that restricts us from trying to fix the situation. Most situations in dark caves are not really fix-able—but we can bring light and a determined presence into these difficult situations.
- Do something practical. Youth workers are really, really good at dealing with practical needs. Use that skill in the dark caves you’re called to enter. Don’t ask others to do the work of figuring out what they need. Pay ridiculous attention to the situation, and meet the needs you see.
- Be aware of your role in the Kingdom, and fully embrace it. You are at the nexus of a spiritual war, and therefore your job description requires entering dark caves. Unless you are a trained counselor, you won’t be able to do the heavy lifting that dark-cave counseling requires. But your determination to go into the cave is life-giving itself. Hold a hand, weep, hug, promise your presence, and assert the authority and reality of Jesus.