This I Know…PG-13

On Sunday, Youth Pastor Beau Gamble interviewed Luanne Marshall about today’s youth culture. Luanne is the Academic Facilitator at Kelly Walsh High School here in Casper. According to her, her job is to build relationships with kids who are “at-risk”. She said that academics are her door into their world, the first step to gaining their trust so that she can build relationships with them and love them. Beau talked to her about what she encounters while working with these kids on a daily basis.

There is no way I’ll cover everything Beau and Luanne talked about–even in what they shared, they only had time to scratch the surface of what our teenagers are dealing with. I do want to highlight some of what stood out most to me.

The conversation began with Luanne challenging the narrative about what an “at-risk” kid is. What do you think about when you hear that label? Chances are, you don’t think of church kids with good grades and a modest appearance, from good neighborhoods with good parents. The picture in your mind most likely looks nothing like that. Yet, there are countless kids who fit my description who are, in fact, at-risk. Sometimes at-risk relates to academics. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Beau asked Luanne, “What is an “at-risk” kid?” Luanne responded, “I was at risk.” She shared with us that she lost her mom when she was eleven years old. Her dad remarried a year later. His new wife was a widow. Between them, they had seven children. All of them were carrying the burden of loss and grief. And now they lived together under one roof–on the other side of town from where Luanne had gone to elementary school. She told us, “I was never at risk academically, but I was emotionally. I did not know how to articulate my pain. I was self-destructive, and others-destructive, because we don’t self-destruct all alone. People had no idea. It was not rebellion against my parents. I was trying to take care of my own pain the only way I knew how.” She also shared with us that she never wanted to reflect poorly on her dad, who was a pastor. She loves him dearly and was aware then of how her behavior could impact him. So she kept up appearances at church.

I was at-risk, too, but like Luanne, most of the people around me would never have known. My grades were near-perfect, I excelled in music, I wore a happy face–especially at church. But I spent my earliest years in an environment that was spiritually, verbally, and physically abusive. Not only was I not taught how to articulate my pain, I was punished if I tried. So I stuffed. And conformed. When I was eleven, two major events occurred in my life. My mom was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and my parents divorced. We moved four times that year, and I attended three different middle schools. I continued to stuff and conform for a few more years. I was both of my parents’ shoulder to cry on, my mom’s right-hand while she was sick, and I kept the peace in our family as well as I could. I maintained my grades and activities, while my emotional and psychological well-being continued in a downward spiral. By late high-school, I was self-medicating with alcohol and sex, living to be loved and accepted, and to be seen–even if it was for the wrong reasons. My parents, along with most of the adults in my life, never knew the extent of my self-destruction. I still maintained near-perfect grades and excelled in music and at my job. Mercifully, I survived that season of my life. There were many opportunities for me not to. I was at-risk, too.

As I ponder my experiences, along with Luanne’s, I wonder how many of you are nodding along as you read. How many of you were at risk, too, in one way or another. I bet the numbers are staggering… In Beau’s closing prayer, he said these words, “We’re all kids–some of us are just older than others.” Hearing those words instantly brought tears to my eyes. I’m still trying to discern why I felt it so deeply, but I think it was mostly because it’s so true. Most of us grew up not knowing how to articulate our pain, and for most of us, it came out sideways along the way. We all have different stories and experiences, but regardless of how wonderful our parents may have been, it’s unlikely that any of us made it into adulthood without experiencing some level of trauma. I grew up with parents who did the best they knew how to do, but no one had taught them how to deal with their own pain, so how could they teach me how to deal with mine?

Luanne told us that there were adults who loved her well throughout her self-destructive years. These people modeled the ways of Jesus to her. She said that they, “…loved me unconditionally, always,” and that there was, “no judgement, ever.” She said later on, “People aren’t shamed and judged into the kingdom of God. They’re loved into the kingdom.” These precious people saw beneath the image Luanne was projecting. They saw that she was isolating and in pain, and rather that grilling her about it, they simply loved her right where she was. It was clear as she spoke that she still feels the impact of these people in her life today.

These nameless people (they are not nameless to Luanne, of course, but they are to the rest of us) were a drop of love in the pool of her pain. That one drop created the first ripple in the wave of love that is now impacting hundreds of students each year. There’s no way to measure how many lives have been touched and changed because they took the time to see and love one hurting, at risk girl. That girl grew up to model the Christ-like love that was modeled to her, and now she’s the one who sees and loves the hurting kids around her. And she teaches others to do the same. She learned how to process her pain. She took the necessary steps to get help. She took the time to heal. She was willing to own her own stuff, and chooses to be honest about her own brokenness. She doesn’t try to change the world alone, because she’s learned that this life is a journey that we take together.

We can do that, too. We can learn how to articulate our own pain, how to own our own stuff, how to be honest about our brokenness. And we can do it in front of our kids, so that they can learn what we never did–how to process the pain of life rather than walk the road of self–and others–destruction. We can lead by laying down our pride and our walls, so that our kids can see that, while they are dealing with different things than we did, we’re not that different at all. We’re kids who are learning how to navigate the journey, too–we’re just a little older. We aren’t great at articulating our pain, either. And we need them as much as they need us. We can become aware, and we can be willing to learn about what we don’t know. We can choose to love people–not as projects, but as the individuals they are.

The things our youth are facing are daunting… They are growing up in a culture where suicides are commonplace, where constant standardized testing tells them they’re never good enough, where social media has replaced relationship, and sexting is an accepted part of conversations. They are a community of misfits who haven’t seen acceptance of diversity modeled. They are struggling with their sexual identities, their ethnicities, and the policies and systems that affect their lives in a world that is angrier than ever before. They are angry. They are scared. They deal with unprecedented anxiety levels. They learn active shooter procedures in P.E. They are addicted, and so are their parents. They are taking care of sick parents and mourning the loss of parents who chose suicide as their answer. They are a generation well-acquainted with abuse in all of its forms. They don’t have “safe spaces” to process all of this. They don’t know how to find the love, care, compassion, and wisdom they’re craving, so they look to their peers or to themselves for answers. Many of them see churches as judgmental and exclusive, some because they’ve experienced shunning from Christians. The Christian witness they hear often sounds angry and uninviting…

They don’t know how to dream of a better tomorrow–many of them have no dreams at all. It is dark, and it is daunting.

But friends, this I know… There is hope for a new day. Carolyn shared with us last week that “We are a people of hope,” and that God can restore and reach “far out to places you’d never imagine.” That includes the lives of our youth, this next generation to whom  we will hand off the baton. We can all be one small drop that creates a ripple effect in the lives of our youth, the way that those adults who saw and loved Luanne created the first ripple in her life. Tomorrow is a new day, and it really can be differentIt will take courage. And honesty. And time. And it will start small. But, remember,

“Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin…” (Zechariah 4:10a, NLT)

“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.” (Philippians 1:6, NLT)

We don’t do the work alone. In our own lives, as well as in the lives of the kids around us, our friend Jesus is the source. The starting point. Our model for how to love. He begins the work, if we’re willing, within us. And as we live out our journey of brokenness and healing in front of our kids, as we honestly own our stuff and make space for theirs, the love of Jesus will flow out of us and become drops that create ripples that make a difference in the lives of our kids… The story isn’t over. There are chapters yet to write. We can work toward a better tomorrow. There is hope. This I know…

–Laura

There is always hope. As the people of God choose to put people first, to love them well, to meet them right where they are, things begin to change. God’s plan for salvation, for saving lives is through relationships. Salvation is not for the after life, it is for the here and now. As Laura wrote above, my life was saved because people who loved Jesus loved me right where I was. And yes, I am very honest with students about my own brokenness, I share with them nuggets that I learned in my therapy, and in so doing, I give them permission to be real. Sometimes it takes years to build a relationship, sometimes months, sometimes it happens almost instantaneously, and some students resist relationships altogether, but I still greet them by name when I see them. Nothing that I do is hard. I greet students by name. I smile. I make every effort not to talk down to them, I try to always treat them with respect. I “see” them, as do many other adults in our building.

Even still, I was part of a suicide intervention today. What Beau and I talked about Sunday is real. Our kids are hurting. Our kids are anxious. Our kids are afraid. Our kids are angry. Our kids don’t know how to express how overwhelmed they are. They don’t know what to do with their pain.

So I write to those of us who would qualify as older kids– are we in touch with ourselves enough to know our own brokenness? Our own anger? Our own fear? Our own hurt?Have we sought healing? Are we on the healing journey? Have we found healing? Are we sharing our journeys with others so that we have support, and so others know they are not alone?  Would we be considered safe people for others? Are we able to hold their hearts, their pain, and their stories with the awareness that we have been entrusted with a precious gift–the gift of vulnerability, of confidentiality? Do we know how to do conflict well? Do we listen well? Are we pouring love, grace, and wisdom into the generation that is coming behind us?

We come together through the love of Christ into the Kingdom of Heaven on earth to experience and to share in one another’s sufferings and joys. Yes it’s messy. No, we won’t do it perfectly, yet through the messy of our shared humanity God’s kingdom comes and His will is done on earth. It’s slow, but it’s powerful enough to change the world.

As Laura wrote above: The story isn’t over. There are chapters yet to write. We can work toward a better tomorrow. There is hope. This I know…

–Luanne

11947-one-step-at-a-time

Daily Kindness

As  I reflected on John’s sermon about “kindness” as one of “The Dailies”,  and reflected on acts of kindness that have come my way, one story in particular stuck out to me. Unfortunately, it doesn’t paint me in a very good light, but it is beautiful.

During my teen years, I was living in a great deal of emotional pain. My mother had died a few years before. My dad had remarried a widow with four children of her own, all in the same age range as my siblings and me, and life was chaotic for a few years. I can not remember what prompted my outburst, but one afternoon I had a melt down directed toward my dad. I yelled, I said ugly things, and at one point, my grand finale moment, was that I did not want to live with them anymore. I wanted to live in foster care. Then I stormed out of his room and went downstairs. He came down after a few minutes and told me to get my sweater. My heart began to beat a little faster, afraid that he really might be wanting to take me to live elsewhere, but in my pride, I did not apologize or let on that I was nervous. We got in the car and he took me to play miniature golf and then took me to Dairy Queen. He told me that he knew I was hurting, that he loved me deeply and that nothing would ever change that. I deserved punishment. I received kindness. Kindness that didn’t make sense. Kindness that softened my heart and brought a piece of healing to my chaotic, painful life. It was more than an act of kindness. It was a heart of kindness overflowing with love for me. It is one of my most cherished memories.

In 1965, Dionne Warwick recorded the song, “What the World Needs Now”; the chorus goes like this:

What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. What the world needs now is love, sweet love. No, not just for some, but for everyone.

How true those lyrics still are today, and God’s delivery system plan for that love is us. We, the followers of Christ will take it to the world. It’s why we’re here. What will it look like? It will look like kindness. Kindness is how love behaves.

Ephesians 2:6-7 tells us that “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus Christ is God’s expression of kindness to us.  Have you experienced his kindness in Christ? Have you experienced the kindness of his forgiveness? Have you experienced the kindness of his presence? Have you experienced the kindness of his love? Have you experienced the kindness of his transforming power in your life?

The world has a very skewed perspective of God. However, as John said in his sermon, the world defines God by what they see in us. I have a much clearer picture of God’s grace, kindness and unconditional love because of my dad’s response to my outburst. The opposite is also true;  when the world thinks that God is mean, distant, angry–they get that impression from his followers. They define God by what they see in us. That hurts my heart.

Without a doubt, kindness is an action, but it goes beyond just being nice. True kindness is a fruit of the Spirit. (Gal 5:22)  Paul tells us in Colossians 3:12 “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. ”  The only way we can clothe ourselves like that is to allow ourselves to be filled with and empowered by the Holy Spirit, which means we must crucify our flesh and follow His lead in our lives. Can you imagine how different the world would be if Jesus’ followers really lived this way–If what spilled out of us was compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, love, joy peace?

Currently, a Google search of the phrase “why are Christians so…” brings up words like miserable, judgemental, intolerant, mean…Can you imagine if a Google search brought up words like kind, compassionate, loving, gentle?   

And, this kindness…it’s for everyone. Not just the people we like. Not just for the people whose favor we may be trying to earn. Not just for people who are nice to us, or kind to us in return. No–this is a Holy Spirit type of kindness. This is the type of kindness that is expressed when Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. (Mt. 5:44).  This type of kindness is impossible apart from the Holy Spirit. But if the world is going to change, if Jesus’ prayer for God’s kingdom to come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven, is going to happen, it is imperative that his followers take–with thanksgiving–the love we have received from God in Christ–so costly, so undeserved, and so life changing–and pass it on to others. This is the kingdom coming on earth. Nothing that we receive from God is for us to horde. It is all to be given away. And what could be more beautiful and world changing than giving away love through kindness every single day–Kindness as a lifestyle, a heart overflow because our hearts are full of the love of God.

Kindness is how love behaves when it displays what Christ has done in us. What has he done in you? Are you willing to pass it on?

–Luanne

Luanne’s last paragraph is short, but powerful. It connects with what has been stirring in my heart since I listened to John’s sermon. She wrote:

“Kindness is how love behaves when it displays what Christ has done in us. What has he done in you? Are you willing to pass it on?

Willingness, it’s a tricky thing… God has been using the word “willing” in my life very intentionally over the past couple of years. I say that it’s tricky because there’s more to willingness than we initially realize. The first definition for the word willing is this:

“inclined or favorably disposed in mind”

If we use this as our only definition, it is probably a safe assumption to say, yes, we are willing to extend the kindness we have received. Most of us do not set our minds on being unkind. I think we have great intentions and we want to be kind to the people around us. At least in our minds…

But, the second definition Merriam-Webster gives for the word takes us a little deeper into the implications of willingness:

“prompt to act or respond”

When we read the full definition of the word willing, it makes it a lot more difficult to honestly answer Luanne’s question, doesn’t it?

In my mind, I have planned to bake treats and go introduce myself to our neighbors… for the past three years… I have thought about making time to take that person to coffee and give the gift of time several times over the past six months

If my willingness to extend kindness starts and stops in my mind… I am neither willing nor kind. True willingness is prompt to act or respond. Kindness, as Luanne shared above, is how love behaves. It is glaringly clear that both require action.

How, then, do we grow our good intentions into true, willing kindness?

The answer can be found in a verse John shared in his sermon. Hebrews 3:13 instructs us to:

 …encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. Hebrews 3:13 (NIV)

Encouragement is one way we see kindness displayed. This verse exhorts us to encourage one another daily. Today. Before today becomes tomorrow. And therein lies our problem.

I didn’t mean to let today turn into three years of not knowing my neighbors. I didn’t intend to let six months pass without asking her to coffee. I simply planned to do it tomorrow… And when tomorrow became today, my plans moved once again to tomorrow.

There are two problems I see with “tomorrow”:

  1. It may never come. None of us is guaranteed a single breath beyond this moment.
  2. Every tomorrow eventually becomes our today. If we haven’t learned and practiced how to live intentionally in the moment we are given, we will not be truly willing. And we will not live out the kindness we ourselves have received.

Hebrews 3:13 tells us clearly why this cycle of “I’ll do it tomorrow” is so hard to break.

…encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

I have learned to pay attention when I see the words “so that” in Scripture. What follows those two words is always important. In this case, it’s a clear warning. If we don’t practice encouraging one another today, we will be hardened and deceived by sin.

Is it sinful to put things off for another day? To plan on doing them tomorrow?

I won’t take the liberty of answering these questions for you. What I do know is that, for me, there is one core reason I put off acting in kindness:

ME.

I don’t have time… What will they think of me I am tired… I don’t want to…

I can come up with eloquent, persuasive arguments as to why I put off extending kindness in the moment. But the root of every argument I could make? Selfishness. And I’m pretty certain selfishness is sin. So, yeah. For me, it is sin to put off until tomorrow what I could do today.

This is difficult to navigate, though, because we don’t often see beyond our good intentions far enough to see our selfishness. And the good intentions in our mind, they deceive us into believing we are kind when our actions (or lack thereof) prove otherwise.

For me, the truly frightening part of this verse is what it says can happen as a result of sin’s deceitfulness…

If we neglect to daily live and act out of the loving-kindness we have received, our verse tells us that we can be “hardened”.

The word “hardened” is translated from the Greek word “skléros. Included in the definition of skleros are the words:

harsh, intolerable, offensive

Those words sound a little bit familiar… They echo the words that Luanne mentioned earlier when she referenced the auto-fill options for the Google search:

Why are Christians so _______ ?

If we don’t act in love and kindness daily; if we are deceived by our sin, selfishness, good intentions, we run the risk of becoming exactly what the world thinks we are. I’m a little blown away by the fact that a couple thousand years ago, this warning was written to Jesus’s followers. And today, we are bearing the consequences of ignoring the warning. Somewhere along the way, our kindness stopped being kindness and turned into a word we didn’t really know the meaning of. We didn’t know it—and we certainly haven’t lived it. Google proves it.

Now, though, we know. We know that kindness is how love behaves. We know that being willing to give others what we have received from Jesus involves prompt action. We know that living out kindness daily protects us from becoming harsh, intolerable, offensive Christians.

We can change the auto-fills, friends. Let’s start today.

–Laura