In preparation for Lent, the United Church of Christ Faith INFO (Faith Education, INnovation, and FOrmation) team has released a new resource, one that traverses the season of reflection and repentance through the writings and experiences of diverse group of youth and young adults from across the United Church of Christ.
Young Voices: Stepping Out of the Wilderness is a 47 day devotional, with reflections from Ash Wednesday through Easter. It was written by UCC members between the ages of 12 and 35 who span the spectrum of gender identity, sexuality, racial, and ethnic diversity.
This was the first major initiative to come from the Faith INFO team as it relates to youth and young adult ministries," said the Rev. Trayce Potter, UCC minister for youth & young adults, noting there had been an absence in this type of youth resource. "It was important for me to highlight our youth and young adults as a kickoff to say we are still here and we have something to contribute to the Church. Our writers are young people who will one day serve as pastors and board members and youth ministers. To be able to give them a platform where they could be heard in ways we don't traditionally give them was exciting."
Potter wrote the first and last two entries of the devotional and curated the resource. Most of the featured scriptures are a part of the current lectionary cycle, with some chosen from last year's texts to engage some of the younger writers with more familiar passages.
15-year old Jackson Coleman wrote his passage on Psalms 27, "To Take Courage in Our Song," which appears on Day 13. "My church (Avon Lake United Church of Christ, Avon Lake, Ohio) has helped me grow in spirit to heights I never thought I would be able to climb. So when my Youth Minister informed me of this opportunity, I felt as though I owed my church for everything it has done for me. This writing seemed a perfect outlet to express my gratitude and give back.
"It's difficult to say one thing that inspired me to write what I did, and I know it took me a long time to finally put something that felt right onto the page," Coleman continued. "But suddenly, as I was reading my passage, the words took on a meaning of their own, and I was writing away. Something just felt right, and the words just struck. I only hope my words inspire people as the scripture inspired me.
17-year old Lauren Winkleblack wrote her reflection around Isaiah 40:4-9, entitled "Being the Hands and Feet of a Loving and Accepting God" that appears on Day 41. She touched on her challenges of being part of an open and affirming church in Simsbury, Conn., faced with other Christians who do not feel as if the church should accept and love members of the LGBTQ community. "I love how the UCC is intentional about welcoming everyone and accepts people from all walks of life and who are at different places on their faith journey. I was inspired to write my devotional because I had a close friend who criticized my church for being accepting of the LGBTQ community and I felt passionate about God's unconditional love towards all and how I intend to continue looking beyond criticisms and choosing to simply love others as God does."
The artwork for Young Voices: Stepping Out of the Wilderness was done by Ted Dawson who has helped create several other UCC publications and coloring books.
"Ted was able to draft something for each day, which we crafted to better fit the writer's words, tone and story," Potter said. "Some of the writers included very personal details about their story and faith journey. We wanted to honor that in any way we could."
Derek Tam, music director at First Church Berkeley, in California, touched on a tragic fire which heavily damaged his church in September 2016, writing "Meeting Our Needs," around John 12:20-33, which appears on Day 39.
"I agreed to write for this project because I really appreciated the opportunity to engage with scripture in a deeper way. Grappling with my particular passage, which featured a group of Greeks trying to seeing Jesus in the week before his crucifixion, I was inspired by my church family (and the UCC at large) in all its diversity, and how every person in that community makes the body of Christ more whole and perfect. I also drew inspiration from how our community is dealing with the continuing effects of a major fire on our campus. We are learning to better discern our needs and to always listen for God's voice in the midst of sometimes difficult conversations, and found that reflected in the passage as well."
The resource covers several Sundays, as well as the traditional forty days of Lent, representing the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring the temptation of Satan and preparing to begin his ministry. In this time of self-examination, the Rev. Traci Blackmon invites members "to step out of the wilderness, to leave the comfort of our routines and our theological certainties to follow Jesus. Every day is a journey with a unique voice to prompt our personal exploration. We are deeply grateful to every youth and young adult that dared to take this journey, for the gift of their writing, for the sharing of their spirits."
The Faith INFO team, created in September, committed to equipping local congregations with resources to teach and to preach for all ages, curating and creating materials where needed. This Lenten Devotional is the first of many resources in the voice of youth and young adults.
15-year old Avery Lapis, of First Congregational Church of South Hadley, Mass., wrote "Seeing a different Jesus" on Day 45 about Mark 15: 1-39. "I knew this project would allow me to dig deeper in my faith and to explore more into my relationship with Jesus. As I have been becoming more involved in the wider church, I am more aware of how much my faith impacts my life. Writing this devotional was another opportunity for me to explore this and I am extremely grateful for that.
"The inspiration I had while writing was that I knew I would be able to strengthen my relationship with Jesus while writing about him and the crucifixion," she continued. "As I was writing, I was able to put my own thoughts and opinions into the story and this was a way for me to gain more knowledge on how I view my relationship with Jesus and how others may view theirs. It was a very inspirational learning experience for me."
Young Voices: Stepping Out of the Wilderness is available for download only from UCC Resources at a cost of $5. Proceeds will be used for additional programs and outreach for youth and young adults in the United Church of Christ.