Disconnecting for Reconnection
by Bishop Mary Ann Swenson
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness.” MT 4:1
“The Spirit immediately drove (Jesus) out into the wilderness.” MK 1:12
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit…was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness…” LK 4:1
Three of the Gospels tell the same story of Jesus going into the wilderness: there he experiences a testing and focusing of his spirit and his purpose. When he comes back into the community, his formal ministry begins. We usually read this story and see in it a model for personal spiritual discipline. As I reflect on my years in ministry, especially the many formative ones in youth ministry, I see another possibility.
Think for yourself of one of the most common and powerful tools of your ministry with youth—the mission trip, the week at camp, the service project, the travel to another state or even country. These experiences are often the annual landmarks of youth ministry, with fundraising projects designed around them, sometimes application procedures requiring recommendations, and written testimonies of faith and purpose. Some of my richest memories are of traveling with my youth groups to Israel, to Youth ’95 in Salt Lake City, a group cycling trip down the California coast, and working on the burned churches project in Alabama.
Whatever the objective purpose might be, these trips all engage the same dynamic of Jesus’ wilderness experience, of becoming spiritually grounded and focused. But instead of going solo, we go apart corporately: the micro-community of the group goes away into an unfamiliar place. The place itself is almost irrelevant— what is significant and I believe transforming, is that together we disconnect from our usual connections. School, jobs, friends, home, hobbies, most of what forms the network of our identity and purpose is left behind. Often these are positive, valuable connections; sometimes they are difficult, even painful bonds. Sometimes, there are simply too many connections!
What Jesus experienced, and we experience when we go away together, is a disconnection, an emptying, a shedding that slowly or suddenly allows us to reconnect in a new way, to be filled up with the presence of God—the Holy Spirit is poured into the center of our community, our gathered family of youth. This is not a personal experience (although we likely experience it as also individually renewing,) but a corporate one: we experience immediately and directly what it means to be the Body of Christ, members one of another.
Jesus modeled this for us in his own relationship with the disciples, as he repeatedly took them away to be alone together. In these times of shared disconnection, they connected deeply with the presence of God manifested in Christ—and in one another. When we go away with our young people, we make it possible for them to set aside not just their iPods and video games and homework and extra-curricular attachments: we create the space for God to form the foundation of our spiritual community.