Press "Enter" to skip to content

Category: Youth Ministry

To Wait

02

A few years ago, I spoke at this camp on the Oregon Coast. There were lots of kids there whose parents I knew. But most of the kids didn’t really know me. And they had plenty of friends at camp. And I was one of the old people.

Except at the end of the week, one of those kids got left at camp. His parents didn’t show up to take him home. I saw him sitting in the gravel next to the Meetinghouse. Looking out at the highway. Waiting.

I decided I’d wait there with him. I walked over to where he was sitting. Sat down in the gravel. And we talked. About his best friend at camp. About his cabin. About whether his parents loved him (that was a joke on my part, but he took the statement seriously). About his sisters. And life the way an elementary-school kid thinks about life.

I think I told him that because of who his dad was, he was growing up with a lot of expectations. I think I told him that his ability to be honest was going to be pretty important, especially when he made mistakes. I think I told him that effort mattered more than ability. And that I thought his parents actually did love him. A lot.

He told me a lot of things as well. But I kept trying to read between the lines and didn’t end up hearing much. I got the feeling, though, that he enjoyed talking, maybe even needed to talk. That walking over and sitting down in the gravel was a quality decision.

Later that year, I ended up on a planning team with that kid’s dad. We had meetings in Newberg, and on at least one occasion, I stayed at their house. They put me in what one of their daughters called “The Pimp Room.” The kid was playing percussion. Showed me some things he’d learned. Talked about the school he’d missed (quite a bit of school as it turned out). And whether he’d be at camp the next summer.

For a few years, this was the pattern. We’d run into each other during a week of camp or at Yearly Meeting. Maybe sit down once or twice. Not for long, though. Too much happens at camp. I had responsibilities. He had lots of friends. We’d talk about school. About his family. About a book he’d been reading but hadn’t finished. About a theory he had. About religion. About people’s expectations. About whether I thought he could learn how to be happy. Or how to care about someone (not just for them). Or how to let people care for him.

Every year his questions got a little more serious. He was smart enough to know he couldn’t get answers to most of his questions. Which was part of the problem. He really, really wanted answers.

As far as he could tell, other kids either hadn’t figured out how to ask important questions. Or their answers had shown up. Right on time. At the end of camp. And he was still sitting here in the gravel, next to the Meetinghouse. Looking out at the highway. Waiting.

A few years ago, I moved back to Newberg. The kid had really grown up. He’d developed into a first-rate high school musician. He was a decent athlete. He had a gift for bringing people together, for creating community, for making people feel safe and accepted. He made mistakes, and those were bigger than they’d been when he was in grade school. And we talked more. About music. About poetry. About his dreams. About his questions. About his relationships. About his mistakes. About God.

I told him that he had value. I told him that he was doing good work (in spite of the mistakes). I told him that the questions might be a lot more important than the answers. I told him that it wouldn’t hurt to listen to his parents. Or to catch up on his schoolwork. Or to be patient with people. And I told him that no matter what he did, I’d still want to be his friend. That no matter what he believed, I’d always be up for a cup of coffee and a talk. That no matter what I heard, I knew the truth of who he was and of who he’d always be.

Someone who cared deeply about how. Someone who cared deeply about why. Someone willing to sit down in the gravel when the rest of the world was driving home. Someone who was willing to look out at the highway and wait.

As far as he could tell, other kids either hadn’t figured out how to ask important questions. Or their answers had shown up. Right on time.

Negative Attention

02

They called me names. They mocked my appearance. They scoffed at my opinions, disdained my attempts at humor. They sometimes threatened violence. A kick to the face broke my glasses once. They called it an accident.

Considering what I might do, I realized that I could leave. I didn’t have to stick around, and I didn’t have to take it; so I resolved that I would show up one more time, if for no other reason than to announce my intention to quit. Mind made up, I felt good. But that night, I made a discovery that changed the way I see. And instead of leaving, I stayed.

They needed me too much.

It was my freshman year in college. I was volunteering with middle school students at a local church. They were horrible, and they wouldn’t leave me alone.

That was the key to my epiphanous moment: they wouldn’t leave me alone.

Other adults in the room didn’t get punched in the back during worship. Other adults in the room didn’t suffer sotto voce critiques of their facial features. Other adults in the room – as far as student behaviors indicated – weren’t even visible.

It wasn’t fair.

That I’d been given so much power.

Edwin H. Friedman claims that “people can only hear you when they are moving toward you,” and for absolutely no good reason, these students had decided to move toward me. They had given me the power over what they heard and how they heard it.

If what has value is like a radio signal in a sea of static, then these students had decided that I was the signal. Other adults in the room were just noise.

I have to admit that, along with the students, I too suffered serious and prolonged bouts of immaturity. In other words, I recognized the power I’d been given, but I didn’t use it well. And the next year, a new group of volunteers – younger and demonstrably cooler – joined the work, so I had to learn to share attention, to be part of a team.

Fortunately, I mostly grew up over the intervening years without growing too “old” to relate. But that time of my life – that discovery I made on a Wednesday night in October, 20 years ago – pointed to a truth that has opened ministry doors in dozens of contexts.

What, exactly, did I learn? That negative attention is attention. When people are moving toward me, whether from loving acceptance or annoyed engagement, they are also attuned to the signals I send. They choose to hear me.

It’s a truth that has helped me to re-perceive what feel like attacks, to see them as opportunities for relationship, as indicators that I have value.

When a parent sends me an email, questioning my judgment, I can rejoice that this parent trusted me enough to start a conversation, to tell me what she really thinks, to give me the opportunity to respond.

When a retired college professor invites me to coffee, sits across from me, and proceeds to tell me why I’m an idiot, I don’t have to hear the isolated critique. After all, I don’t have to take it personally.

I get to.

He has a Ph.D., national recognition, decades of academic experience, and he’s decided that I’m worth his time.

When an elder at my church questions my character in an embarrassing, semi-public, quasi-accusation, I look up and see that she’s looking into my eyes. That she’s not angry. Just afraid. And that thing she just said might be more about her than about me.

What do I do? It depends.

Mostly, I try to receive the gift of attention as a gift, to truly be thankful for the influence I’ve been given, for the value that’s been communicated. I try to listen and really understand. I try to give back.

I’ll admit, it doesn’t always end in raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. But more times than I can count, that parent has volunteered to work in my classroom, that retired professor has shaken my hand and asked if I would be his friend, that elder – in tears – has called to talk about her son and to ask for my forgiveness.

And I pray: God, help me to have the grace to see a world filled with opportunity, a people filled with potential, fields white for harvest. Help me to love my neighbor as myself. Help me also to recognize when my neighbor is trying to love me.

Help me to love my neighbor as myself. Help me also to recognize when my neighbor is trying to love me.

Between-ness

06

I find that much of my work as a youth pastor involves helping students to live in rather than evade the tension of authentic living. Within my own denomination, for example, there are emphases on both simplicity and stewardship. Should I carefully steward what I have for the future? Or give away everything, taking a vow of poverty in order to live simply?

It’s human to want to resolve the tension, to want to move in one direction or the other. But that kind of resolution almost always ends in an extreme (making me an extremist). It’s much harder to live in the tension, to daily struggle with balance, with paradox, with the between-ness of never quite getting it right and never giving in or giving up.

It’s human to want to resolve the tension

PO Box 751 . Newberg OR 97132-0751