The Spirituality of Teens

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Today I want to say a few words about the spirituality of teens, and as a context for my comments, I will draw from a sacred text that most if not all of you are familiar with: Harry Potter. Listen to this excerpt from the third book in the series: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban:

The staffroom, a long, paneled room full of old, mismatched chairs, was empty except for one teacher. Professor Snape was sitting in the low armchair, and he looked around as the class filed in. His eyes were glittering and there was a nasty sneer playing around his mouth. As Professor Lupin came in and made to close the door behind him, Snape said, “Leave it open, Lupin. I’d rather not witness this.” He got to his feet and strode past the class, his black robes billowing behind him. At the doorway he turned on his heel and said, “Possibly no one’s warned you, Lupin, but this class contains Neville Longbottom. I would advise you not to entrust him with anything difficult. Not unless Miss Granger is hissing instructions in his ear.”

Neville went scarlet. Harry glared at Snape; it was bad enough that he bullied Neville in his own classes, let alone doing it in front of other teachers. Professor Lupin had raised his eyebrows.“I was hoping that Neville would assist me with the first stage of the operation,” he said, “and I am sure he will perform it admirably.” Neville’s face went, if possible, even redder. Snape’s lip curled, but he left, shutting the door with a snap.

‘Now, then,’ said Professor Lupin, beckoning the class towards the end of the room, where there was nothing except an old wardrobe in which the teachers kept their spare robes. As Professor Lupin went to stand next to it, the wardrobe gave a sudden wobble, banging off the wall. “Nothing to worry about,” said Professor Lupin calmly, as a few people jumped backwards in alarm. “There’s a Boggart in there.”

Most people seemed to feel that this was something to worry about. Neville gave Professor Lupin a look of pure terror, and Seamus Finnegan eyed the now rattling doorknob apprehensively. “Boggarts like dark, enclosed spaces,” said Professor Lupin. “Wardrobes, the gap beneath beds, the cupboards under sinks – I once met one that had lodged itself in a grandfather clock. This one moved in yesterday afternoon, and I asked the Headmaster if the staff would leave it to give my third-years some practice. “So the first question we must ask ourselves is, what is a boggart?”

Hermione put up her hand. “It’s a shape shifter,” she said. “It can take the shape of whatever it thinks will frighten us most.” “Couldn’t have put it better myself,” said Professor Lupin.

That’s our excerpt from Harry Potter this morning. Professor Lupin is giving his class a practical Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson—how to deal with boggarts—and this is exactly what comes to mind as I think about the spirituality of teens and, in fact, the spirituality of all of us, no matter what our age happens to be. Spirituality is closely tied to the fears and uncertainties in our lives—the inadequacies, the sense of helplessness, the lack and failure of control. So spirituality becomes a way by which we learn how to cope. It incorporates all that is involved in being able to face the boggarts of life with serenity, courage, and wisdom.

Let’s touch on some of those boggarts, first, before we talk about “the how” of facing them effectively.

Many of the boggarts that teens face have to do with the question of identity. Teens are living out this question, this search for who they are, in a larger social context pressurized with demands on their attention, their money, and their time. Pressures coming at them from culture, from their peer group, from school, from home and family. Can I make an A? Can I get a date? Can I get a job? How do I deal with my parents’ problems? How do I deal with my own? Can I look like a model or a TV character or a rock star? Can I make the team? Do I have friends? Are they the right friends? Can I trust them? What do I do about that teacher who doesn’t like me? What do I want to be when I grow up? Do I have the right things? Do I like the right things? Do I walk right? Am I popular? Am I OK? Does somebody love me?

All of such questions, tinged with frightening anxiety. The boggarts appear. And then there are the boggarts teens face which we all face, because we all live in the same world. For everyone, climate change is a frightful boggart, and so are violence and war. So also are such things as consumerism. Consumerism reflects the need of a capitalist economy to never stop growing, and so the solution is people being created into consumer selves whose basic sense of necessity always expands and who no longer can tell the difference between their true needs and their ever-expanding wants. These new wants are often created by appealing to some of the worst of human potentials: insecurity, envy, vanity, impulsiveness, pride, surface images and appearances, the sexual objectification of others, emotional impulses habitually trumping rational thought, short-term gratification, and so on. Every time we see or hear an advertisement for some product, some kind of boggart rises up out of a dark, triggering the fear that we are truly missing out unless we do this or buy that…. So we do this, and we buy that, and we find ourselves living lives that are false to our real needs, lives which are not sustainable for ourselves or the planet.

Out of the dark, enclosed spaces, the boggarts appear.

And thus the need for a Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson, on how to face them, what to do with them. Here’s what Professor Lupin has to say. He says, “’It’s always best to have company when you are dealing with a boggart. He becomes confused. Which should he become, a headless corpse or a flesh-eating slug? I once saw a boggart make that very mistake—tried to frighten two people at once and turned himself into half a slug. Not remotely frightening.’” Professor Lupin goes on to say, “The charm that repels a boggart is simple, yet it requires force of mind. You see, the thing that really finishes a boggart is laughter. What you need to do is force it to assume a shape that you find amusing. We will practice the charm without wands first. After me, please…” And this is where Professor Lupin asks the class to repeat the word, riddikulus! Say that word with me….

You know, teens can struggle with isolation. Teens can struggle with loneliness. I know I did, and still do. And this can block the magic, it can sap all the focus and energy and force of mind needed to shout out riddikulus! in a way that works. Which leads me to the first characteristic of a vital teenage spirituality, which is friendship. It’s just hard to face down a boggart alone, and there’s no one to talk to, no one to listen, no one to help you think through your ideas, reality test, see things from various angles. Friendship is key. One of our coming of age youth said, in his credo, “I find holiness in others, and a group is possibly the holiest place for me.” Being surrounded by friends when you are dealing with a boggart is key.

And then there is this—the fact that adults have a critical role to play. NOT adults like Professor Snape, who is insufferably impatient with his teenage students and who, I suspect, sees them as alien, utterly strange, coming from a different planet, not worth his time or attention. NOT adults like Professor Snape, but adults like Professor Lupin, who knows that his teenagers are more similar to adults than different; who expresses interest in them and connects with them in consistent, caring ways; who sets healthy boundaries in his classroom even as he never stops letting them know that he loves them; who talks to them about stuff and listens. Did you know that in a recent major study of teenage spirituality, the researchers discovered that in many cases, their interview represented the first time that any adult had ever asked them what they believed in and how it mattered in their life? The researchers remarked, “Very many seemed caught off-balance by our simple questions, uncertain about what we were asking, at a loss to know how to respond.” But just contrast this to the Harry Potter story, the way Professor Lupin is in a real, regular conversation with his teenage students, giving them the tools they need to face a difficult world. Sharing knowledge and skills that they don’t know. The students LOVED Professor Lupin—our teenagers hunger for relationships just like this, even if they might not want to admit it….

Adults have a critical role to play in the spirituality of our teens. I’m so grateful to the parents and mentors in our congregation who have been the Professor Lupins among us. I’m so grateful to the teachers in our schools and universities who are like this. Let’s have more of them. So much is at stake.

The spirituality of teens. It’s a spirituality of facing down the inevitable fears and challenges of life, some of which are unique to teens, some of which people of all ages have. It’s a spirituality of community and friendship. It’s a spirituality that adults have a critical role to play in. And finally, it’s a spirituality of courage and good humor.

Like all sacred scripture, I take Harry Potter seriously without talking it literally. That’s what I do. Fact is, we can shout riddikulus! all day long at the things that we fear—at worrisome stuff happening at home or at school, at the question of who I want to be when I grow up, at climate change, at war, at consumerism run rampant—but this in itself won’t force the problems to change shape or go away. Yet the laughter changes us. That’s the point. Consider a story about a thirteen-year-old named Lindy. Lindy was terminally ill with cancer. She knew fear first hand, she knew the pain, the tears. Yet she wasn’t going to allow herself to drown in all that. The story is that she was going in for surgery, where the doctors would remove her stomach tumor. Risky procedure. When it was time for Lindy to be prepped, and her garments removed, the doctors found a note that she had secretly taped to her tummy. This is what the note read: “Dear Doctors: While you’re taking out my tumor, please remove the mole on my nose. I’m going to be a movie star, and that thing has just got to go. See you soon!” Do you see what Lindy did here? She just said riddikulus! to her fears. She’s not dismissing them, as if to say that they reflect nothing real. She’s not taking a defeatist perspective, as if to say that there’s no hope. She’s taking a humor perspective, saying yes, the fears are real, but I can face them, I am equal to them, YES I CAN, I can rise above them and get to a place of calm, from which I can act more effectively and appropriately. YES I CAN.

That’s what I wish for our youth today, coming of age, or graduating. That’s what I wish for all of us. That we have that YES I CAN attitude. The boggarts appear, but we are in the company of friends; we are surrounded by the teaching and support of parents and mentors; and we have a magic word to say. Say it with me, one more time: riddikulus!