Monday, March 28, 2016

Most Helpful

     I recently came across a small packet of papers my fourth grade teacher bound together and gave each of her students at the end of that school year. Among those papers is a list of class superlatives, and at the very bottom, next to "Most Helpful", is my name.
     While it's not the most exciting superlative on the list (I remember being sad that I wasn't voted "Prettiest" and later realizing no fourth grade girl should have to worry about who is prettiest), I think there is an element of truth to it. I can remember when I was very young, even before fourth grade, my Grandma would take me with her when she delivered Meals on Wheels or helped cook supper at church, and she always called me her little helper. Sometimes I pretended to be embarrassed by that title, but on the inside it was one of my proudest accomplishments at the time. I've always liked to help people, but even a positive attribute like being helpful has a downside. I've been in friendships where my main role was listening and offering advice, which is a normal part of friendship until it becomes the only part. It took me years to learn that you can't help people who won't help themselves, and sometimes I still forget that.
Another downside is that the modern world can be an overwhelming place for people like me who feel compelled to constantly feel like we are helping in some way. I have a smartphone in my pocket that gives me access to breaking news about tragedies that happen thousands of miles away, tragedies that I can do nothing about. The world is full of problems I can't solve, and have the technology to keep me informed about them, sometimes even as they are still unfolding. There are orphans in Honduras who I grew to love over the course of ten days three summers ago and never saw again, and sometimes I'm not sure if I improved their lives in any lasting way, and that's really been bothering me lately.
Yesterday we celebrated Easter, and it was a reminder to me that I don't have to solve all of the problems in the world, because the biggest problem the world ever faced has already been solved. Before I was even born, the most innocent man who ever walked the earth stepped in and took the burden for mine and everyone else's sins, solving our biggest, most fatal dilemma within three days. I will never be able to solve all of the problems I encounter, and that fact will most likely bother me forever. The world will always be a treacherous place full of unsolved problems that nag at me, but that fact in itself doesn't seem so alarming when I remember that this world is not the final destination. I take comfort in knowing that no problem in the world can completely ruin me, because the most important problem has already been solved for me, and that solution can never be reversed.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Letter to a Dedicated Youth Leader

Hello Friend,
     It feels strange to write you a letter, because I see you almost every day. It feels even stranger to suddenly express so many emotions about my experience having you as my youth leader, because our relationship has changed. You’re my friend now, and I’m not technically even considered a “youth”. But I’ve had some new thoughts lately that I feel like I need to share with you, and you’re always a good listener, so here we go.
       For a while, I was worried that I was overstaying my welcome at youth group and only showing up to hang out with you. I didn’t think I had a place with teenagers. I can talk to most children and adults pretty easily, but I thought teenagers were the one group I would never know how to connect with. But lately, as I’ve been thinking and praying about what I’m supposed to do with this time in my life while it just feels like I’m always waiting for the next thing, (a degree, a “real” job, a more exciting social life) I’ve started to discover a new desire to be a role model, for the youth I see every week and all of the other younger people I encounter. I don’t always know the right way to connect with them, but I want to try. I want to give them what you gave me. Before I even realized it, you were showing me how to be the kind of person I want to be, and I want to thank you for that.
     Thank you for all of the things you did for me when I didn’t fully appreciate them yet.  My psychology professor says that it’s natural for adolescence to be a self centered time, and that we should “love teenagers until they can love themselves”. Thank you for loving me when my mind was consumed with trivial things like feuds with friends, or my inability to get along with a certain teacher. Those things were important to me at the time, so thank you for taking me seriously when I constantly complained about them. You helped me make it through that painful phase when I couldn’t love myself, and I’m so glad you were there beside me on that fateful night in Honduras when I could finally admit that my inability to love myself was a real problem that I needed God to help me solve. Although those problems are in the past now, being a college student and young adult comes with a new set of challenges, and you’re someone I can always count on to give wise advice when it’s needed, and to just listen without judgement when I need to vent.
     Thank you for all the hours you spend with the youth group, when there are so many other things you could be doing. I have a better appreciation now for just how busy you are, and how you consciously choose to make us a priority. Being our youth leader is not something you do because you have free time you want to fill,  it’s something you choose to make time for in your ridiculously hectic life. And it’s not an afterthought, even though it’s often your last commitment before you get to go home. You teach solid lessons week after week, lessons that often lead to great discussions that I learn from still.
    Thank you for being honest, and for being the one to make me understand that as a Christian, I need to overcome my desire to fit in, not accommodate it. I hope no one ever makes you feel like you need to replace substance and honesty with fun and games to draw larger crowds, because your honesty about what it really means to be a Christian is something that shaped my faith in a lasting way.
    Thank you for taking the time to really listen to us. As a teenager, it was uncomfortable to hear adults talk about people my age and imply that we were mysterious and unpredictable. Instead of talking about me, you talked to me. You ask me and the rest of the youth group about our lives, and you listen to our answers. I’m almost twenty one now, and you’ve become one of the people I trust most when I need to talk about something, because you’re still listening.
     Our youth group is like a dysfunctional family. We tease each other like siblings, but I believe that’s because deep down we must love each other like siblings. We don’t know what quiet is, and at times we treat the simplest of service projects like a prison sentence. I know sometimes it must seem like we don’t listen to anything you say, but we do hear you. In the midst of all the times we interrupt you to say something off topic, or make fun of your driving whenever you take us anywhere, or accuse you of yelling or using your “teacher voice” when you talk to us (That last one is usually me), we have grown to trust you, respect you, and I think I can speak for all of us when I say we love you. I might be the only one who will actually say it right now, but that’s because I’ve had more time to understand the impact you’ve had on my life.
    I know the day might come when God will call you away from your position as youth leader, but I don’t want to think about that right now. I’m just thankful that we’ve become friends so you’ll always be a part of my life, even if that doesn’t include youth group. You showed up, and you listened, and you cared. That’s exactly what I needed you to do. You’ve showed me how to be an example to others by being an example to me. Thank You.

2013 in Honduras, and today in the rain on a youth group adventure. I'm happy that our friendship has grown stronger and my hair has grown longer.

Monday, March 7, 2016

We Are Not Cool: The Important Role of Youth Group in Today's World

At one time during my early high school years, a friend invited me to a new youth group she had started attending, maybe because of a boyfriend, I don’t exactly remember. It was almost an hour away from home, and I remember feeling really cool whenever I got to go. The room was always dark, and there was a rock band. The youth pastor was probably around 40, and it seemed to me like he was trying really hard to be relatable by wearing skinny jeans and calling everybody “dude”. I remember I thought one of the boys in the band was cute, and I also remember hoping that my parents never asked for too many details when I got home, because I knew it wouldn't be very hard for them to figure out that my intentions were more focused on cute boys than spiritual growth. I can not remember a single Biblical lesson I learned from that youth group.
    In my youth group now, there is no rock band. We don’t have a youth pastor like some bigger churches, we have a youth leader that really cares about us and makes us a priority. I think the difference between my youth group now and the youth groups I have attended in the past is that we are not being taught a watered down brand of Christianity that allows us to feel like we can be Christians and still be what our society considers cool. Instead, we are being taught how to be strong Christians in spite of a society that tells us that is the most uncool thing we could be. Recently when I searched the phrase “youth group” on Pinterest, the first suggestion that came up as I was typing was “youth group games.” My youth leader loves games more than anyone I have ever met, but even so, they are mostly reserved for special events like lock-ins. During our regular Thursday night meetings, we do some serious learning. We recently read through 1 John (Not to be confused with just regular John, or John 2 or John 3!) and discussed it verse by verse. We are now doing the same study that my adult Sunday school class is doing, and the insights these youth have about it are impressive.
    As a person who is getting an unlikely second chance to experience youth group with a more adult perspective, If I could tell the world one thing about the importance of youth group, it would be this. Don’t assume that youth have nothing to offer the church, and don’t assume that the church has nothing to offer them. One thing we talk about a lot in our youth group is priorities, and these young people are already making their faith a priority by showing up after a long day of school and sports practice, many nights knowing there is still homework to be done. That's not an easy thing to do, even for adults, and I give them credit.
   Another thing I would say is that young people do not need to be tricked into following Jesus with elaborate games and flashy bands. I know this for a fact because every Thursday night, at our little church in the middle of nowhere, a group of young people gather and have honest discussions about the God we follow. No rock bands, just a mismatched group of teenagers and a dedicated leader who are choosing to make our faith a priority in a world full of distractions. 
We trust teenagers every day to make many decisions that will affect their futures, like where they will go to college and what career they will pursue, but when the future becomes the present and they are adults with jobs and families and the worries that come with living in this unstable world, they will discover that even the most solid career doesn't guarantee happiness or security, and it most certainly doesn't guarantee eternal life. Only faith in God can do that, and that is why I adamantly believe in the importance of helping our youth develop a solid faith that can withstand the temptations and dangers of the world they will live in. I don't want them to face this cruel world without a solid foundation of faith, and it would be irresponsible of me not to do everything I can to help them build that faith. We don't have to worry about being cool, there's no time for that. We just need to love our youth now, because right now is the only time that is guaranteed. You don't need a rock band, and a stuffy upstairs room with a few beanbags works just as well as a giant auditorium. Youth don't need to be tricked or begged, they just need to know that someone cares. If you build it, they will come.