Some of the greatest joys in doing youth ministry come from watching as fruit is born in the lives of young men and women. When students begin to love someone they wouldn’t have before or put off an entrapment of the old Adam to put on Christ, I am overwhelmed by the Spirit’s goodness to me in allowing me to be witness and participate.
There are also many pains that come from being involved with students. Recently there has been a new student coming to our youth group who has some emotional problems as well as extreme social awkwardness. To be quite frank, during the lesson he was loud, boisterous, and random. Many in the group were appalled by his lack of “religious etiquette,” and as such snickered behind his back.
During the following week I spent some time investigating this guy and getting to know him. After hearing his story and finding out what had been going on in his life for the last couple of years, many of the problems and awkwardness were quite understandable. I don’t know if when I was 14 if my dad would have committed suicide, my grandfather whom I loved passed away, and my mom went to jail (and was still there) I would have been in much better shape. So, I began to trickle some of his story to some of the students in order to have them embrace this guy and love him despite his gritty exterior. It worked. The guys really stepped up to the plate and made this guy feel like he was a part of the group.
However, there were still some that decided they would still use him as the butt of all their jokes and make him an object of scorn. Of course, I never saw any of this, but the reports were trickling in. There was division happening right there underneath my very eyes. Just in case the reports were true (you have to weigh the many stories when dealing with middle school girls), I spent some time before Sunday School one morning to reiterate what it means to love God and love neighbor. I urged the students, with the help of the youth student leaders, to remember to show Christ to this guy. Again, I thought the result was that this young man was being embraced by the group.
Still, reports came in. Now being added to the mix was “those over there act all Christian and when they leave youth they don’t act Christian, so I am not going to come any more.” No Pastor wants to hear that, so I began to investigate. I found out that all the tales seem to revolve around one individual, whom I have had problems before with gossip, slander, and malicious speech towards others.
Before I could address the matter, she came to me after youth group the next Wed in tears. The lesson was on the ninth commandment, “Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.” She confessed her sin and how hateful she had been and was being. We urged her toward the cross, to see Christ, his death, and resurrection. She left being grasped more firmly by her identify in Christ and trusting in his sufficiency.
Instead of rejoicing, complaints still flooded in, including, “I don’t want to be where people are like that.” I had the same question for these and I had for the complaints about the young emotionally disturbed young man, “Where do you want them to go so you can stay?” Scarily, the answer we are forced with is hell. In essence, “I don’t want them here because they are so (fake, sinful, or your favorite “others” distinction)” says, “Go to hell, I don’t want you here.”
I was shocked by this realization. Namely, because I myself fall prey to this thinking. I tend to be more harsh toward cultural Christians. I find myself more accepting of the crass, weird, and raw and more sarcastic toward the refined, cultural Christians who say, “I’m going to leave, because I don’t like them.” Is this not the same attitude from me? Where do I want these cultural Christians to go if not here to be grasped by the same Gospel that made the lame walk, the blind see, the DEAD RISE? Am I not saying, “go to hell?”
So, Matthew 11 came to mind and I have been reflecting on Jesus’ words there and wanted to share. Matthew 11:25-26 reminds me that all the wisdom, knowing, degrees, job status, fame, or whatever will not make Jesus more clearly perceived. God himself reveals who Jesus is. It is not something we arrived at. Rather, it is something that takes us and makes us new. Its the voice in the void that says, “let there be new life!” and there is and it is good.
Matthew 11:27 reminds me that Jesus knows the Father and the Father knows Jesus. No one can see the Father unless Jesus shows them, or they get a degree from Seminary, or go to church their whole life, tithe all the time, never cuss, never lust, have 2.8 children, and vote a certain way. No, Jesus reveals his Father to whomever he wills. It is an act of grace and grace alone. My Master’s of Divinity educated self to the middle school girl in my youth group we were just discussing, all of us only see the Father through the grace of Jesus ALONE. This instantly takes the “us vs. them” attitude to the grave.
How did I receive? Pure gift. Who am I to distinguish now, since I have arrived? I heard a pastor say once that we are merely beggars telling other beggars where we found bread. Grace, gift, mercy, from the Father above through his Son, here on earth, applied to us now through the Holy Spirit.
Finally, Matthew 11:28-30 reminds me to resist the urge to be harsh and brash with those who are not like me. Jesus is gentle. He is patient. He is making a new creation. And there’s a secret I easily forget: I am one of them also. I heard Thabiti Anyabwile say during a sermon on race once, that I think applies here also, that as Christians there is no us and them, rather there is us. Us sinners saved by grace.
My prayer for my group is that the Spirit will reveal the gospel to their hearts. That they will grow in humility, as they see how unworthy they were of being called. And then, love one another, so that our group becomes a sanctuary for the restless, the down cast, the emotionally disturbed, and yes, even the cultural Christian. May God’s grace transform us all that Christ may be seen among our neighborhoods, cities, and among the nations.