Poetry can penetrate our deepest defences and help name the longings of our heart.
This year in Years 7-12 we partnered with the writer, educator and performance poet Joel McKerrow to inspire our school community to re-imagine their story and what it means to wholeheartedly indwell the story of the Christian Faith. The feedback from students and staff was very encouraging and an ongoing relationship has been formed.
Joel’s story – Narrative Based Spiritual Formation
The boy can hardly look up from the page. He doesn’t want to remember that thirty eyes are staring at him, so he ignores them. Focuses on the tremor of paper in his earthquake hand. His right leg an uncontrollable jerking of muscle and bone. Sweat gathers on his brow though the room is still early morning cold. He slurs the words as they tumble from his mouth. No one cares. He hardly even makes sense at times. No one cares. This is poetry. It is one of the bravest performances I have ever seen.
The boy launches into his story and I know it all too well. It is one I have heard countless times before. It is punches and names and harsh words and the inevitability of feeling small in the face of all the supposed ‘normal’ people. He pushes his story out of his mouth like it never belonged there in the first place. Like it wasn’t meant to be his story. Like somehow he always knew he was larger than the box that it held him in. Yet it seems only now that he is able to recognise this. So he recognises this. He is angry. Angry at them. Angry at the world. Angry at his condition. He is autistic. He tells us that his brain doesn’t quite work right. He tells us that he wants to be normal. He tells us of the countless times people felt it their prerogative to tell him that he wasn’t. His story ends on a note of defiance, of declaring who he is in the face of ridicule. The class is dead silent. It is a moment no one wanted to break. Something profound had just occurred and everyone in the class room knows this. It is tangible. Sacred.
The silence breaks. As if on cue. As if timed to perfection. Every single person erupts into a barrage of applause. The boy looks up from his paper confused. He is not sure what to do. Where to go. So he just stands there and a huge smile breaks through. Ear to ear. He smiles wide and the class love this all the more and they cheer even louder and I stand at the back of the room and everything that I do makes sense once more. This is poetry. The power of story.
In my years of ministry I often wondered why the back-door of the church was so large for the teenage and emerging adult generations. Why all the research shows that 60-80% of young people who have grown up in the faith leave it all behind by the time they are 24. Of course there are many overlapping reasons, from lack of mentoring, to the lure of the western society, to entertainment based youth groups, to the hypocrisy within the church community, to a watered down gospel. But the one that stands out to me most is the simple fact that there is a great disconnect between The Redemptive Story of God and the small stories of these teenagers everyday lives. That is, the young people I would meet in church circles had no idea how their story fit within THE STORY and how it was subsequently being shaped by it. Because this connection was not present in their faith life there was a gigantic separation between their Christianity and the everyday realities they lived through as well as the stories that had shaped them for better or worse.
A person’s identity is not shaped by what has happened to them in their lives, it is shaped by the stories that the person tells about what has happened to them in their lives.
We tell stories and our stories become us. Subsequently, if the gospel is not penetrating into these stories then it is simply not a vital part of a person’s life. It becomes a religious accessory. A belief system that is tossed very quickly once they are no longer surrounded by their Christian fishbowl.
This is why I am now a storyteller who works within schools to help young people reflect on and articulate their own stories. Because in the naming of their story it is now given the opportunity to be re-storied, to be re-written, to be re-deemed. In the naming of their story something incredibly profound happens. An autistic boy finds healing to his psyche that could not have come any other way. A teenage girl comes to realise that she does not have to be dictated by the things of her past. A kid finally allows himself to be seen by others. At the core of who they are their identity is being reframed and reshaped.
It is here, in these moments, through poetry, that these young people are meeting God, whether they realise such or not.
Psalm 18:24 in The Message says that, “God rewrote the text of my life when I opened the book of my heart to his eyes.”
This is what I offer young people in the work that I do. For the text of their lives to be re-written by a God who desperately loves them and wants to meet them in every part of their story. This is what I call ‘Narrative Based Spiritual Formation’.
At the heart of every person is story and so to live whole-heartedly is to live out of this place. It was this framework and this understanding of people that I bought to the table in my conversation with the chaplaincy team at Caulfied Grammar School in Melbourne. Through poetry and story-telling and having students reflect on their lives we sought to move these young people into ‘whole’ hearted living.
If your school community would like to have a conversation with Joel McKerrow go to joelmckerrow.com.