This past week, I served as an adult sponsor to three junior high-age young men at a four-state Presbyterian camping and conference center west of Kerrville. Those three joined a hundred conferees — “rising” seventh, eighth and ninth grade girls and boys — from churches large and small. As 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds, their lives are being shaped daily by the types of thought, values, faith (or non-faith) and communities they encounter in their respective “worlds” — both when attending a summer church conference and during the entirety of each year.
As they move from childhood to adolescence, they become acquainted with respect, disrespect, temptation, deception, betrayal, strong opinion, risk, learning, conflict, etc. Through history, adolescence has been (and is) understood as a time when identity-shaping is central. Sadly, though, adolescents can be the objects of indoctrination with the worldview of the community exerting influence: a nation, an ethnic group, a religious tradition, etc. Twenty years ago, a person asked me if I had read William Bouwsma’s assessment of “the labyrinth” and “the abyss” in his 1988 book, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait. I had not, but when I did, I found it immediately helpful as a perspective on individuals, communities, cultures and institutions evolving and interacting.
Not to be confused with the (positive) contemplative “walking the labyrinth” spiritual practice, Calvin considered “the labyrinth” in life as a confusing maze of excessive rules and control that stifle and repress God’s gifts of freedom and reform. Calvin viewed “the abyss,” in contrast, as the chaos of too little structure in life and communities. Jesus is understood as one who lived and taught God’s way amid those two ever-present temptations and problematic influences. Any person’s journey through the years includes growth with others who vary in age and who experience interactions with life’s labyrinth and abyss realities.
While a junior high conference of five days can be considered as “managed mayhem,” at its best, it successfully navigates (like life) between being a labyrinth of too many rules and an abyss of individualism manifesting chaos.
It’s not surprising then, that a favorite song at a conference like this is the upbeat music and lyrics of My Lighthouse, by the Northern Ireland folk rock worship band Rend Collective from 2014, which includes the words: “In my wrestling and in my doubts, in my failures you won’t walk out. Your great love will lead me through. In the silence, you won’t let go. In the questions, your truth will hold. Your great love will lead me through. You are the peace in my troubled sea: My lighthouse shining in the darkness. I will follow you, safe to shore.”
This past week in the Texas Hill Country, through music, songs, energizers, worship, discussions, recreation and free time, 100-plus junior high students and their leaders reminded me that youth and adults are “called” as God’s people to journey and negotiate our ways between labyrinth and abyss with all others, each one being a person loved by God.
Ted V. Foote Jr. has been pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Bryan since 2007.