A couple of summers ago I worked with YouthWorks in Indianapolis. (Have you heard of YouthWorks? Do you need a summer job? Or a short term mission trip opportunity?) It was YouthWorks’ first summer in Indy, so we were kind of doing a trial run of just four weeks of programming (as opposed to the usual seven or eight). So for four weeks we – three awesome college students and myself – welcomed youth groups of different denominations and backgrounds and sizes to the United Church of Christ we were calling home for the summer. And every single week there was at least one high schooler struggling with same sex attraction. 4 out of 4. Every week.
It just so happened that two of our staff members had struggled/were struggling with the same darn thing. What a mighty God we serve.
One week three high school guys approached one of our male staff and asked if they could talk with him. They talked with him for at least an hour. They said, “We have some questions and we’ve tried talking to our youth pastor but he won’t engage us in this conversation.” I totally get that hearing a high schooler, especially if it’s a high schooler who you’ve known since they were a preschooler, whose parents are involved in the church, say, “I experience same sex attraction. What am I supposed to do about that?” can be scary and hard. But how much scarier and how much harder is it for that high school to work up the courage to share that with you? Youth pastors, pastors, teachers – you have to be prepared. You have to be a safe place. And, “that’s a sin, stop doing that,” does not count as a safe answer.
Of course while my totally authentic and transparent and loving coworker was talking to these guys, listening to their questions and stories and just being present, the other staff members and I were doing dishes and I was all, “Where is that other guy?! He should be here now!” Which is why God put me in Indianapolis with some really awesome college students who understand way down deep in their souls that relationships are more important than anything. Because I forget that all the time. What a mighty God we serve.
One week we had two different youth groups coming and one of them was from Michigan! I was all, “Hooray! People who will play euchre with me during free time!” And they totally did, which was great. One of the organizations we partnered with that summer had a thrift store and one of our jobs was to organize the donations they received. So one afternoon (or morning, I don’t know) I sat in the basement of this big ol’ building full of donations with some high school students from Michigan and sorted clothes. We would just pull open a trash bag and then start making piles. Of course, because we’re super fun Michiganders, we would also stop for the occasional fashion show, or to switch our cheetah print faux fur jacket for a sequined sweater.
At every YouthWorks site every participant and staff member has a mail bag. At the end of the week with the Michigan group I checked my mail bag and in there I found a note from one of the students from the Michigan group. We had played cards together and he was mostly the one putting on the fashion shows in the basement among piles of donated faux fur jackets. In that note he shared his story. He said he had started sharing his faith story during church group on the last evening of the trip but had got cut off and he wanted to share it with someone so he wrote it down. And he picked me. I cried when I read it because he trusted me with his story.
In his note he shared about his struggle reconciling science and the Bible and his struggle reconciling his sexual orientation with the hate he had experienced in his previous church. He trusted me with that. He had known me for five days. We had played cards together and modeled faux fur and shiny scarves and he felt safe enough to tell me his story.
I think this is what’s next for me. Being a safe place for people to tell their stories. Which is crazy bananas because I am awful at telling other people’s business and just waiting for my turn to talk and just thinking in my head about how I’d rather be reading than talking to this person, BUT GOD. And BUT GRACE. I think this is where I grow now.
Listening well is a great way to love well. Loving well is a great way to point to the God who is love. If nobody trusts me with their story, I never have the opportunity to listen well. If I turn people away, tune them out, put up my hands or plug my ears, I’m destroying any chance of a connection with that person.
Jesus, the gospel personified, said the greatest commands were to love God and to love people. So when someone has a question, when someone trust me with their story, what is my response? What is your response? What is our response? We acknowledge our need. (OUR need, our collective and human need.) We acknowledge that there is a problem. Be the youth pastor or the YouthWorks staff member who says, “Absolutely we can talk about that. I don’t have all the answers, but I am willing to listen.” Then point to Jesus. “I don’t have all the answers, but I know Jesus literally loves the hell out of you, died for you, and wants you right now just as you are.”
When we come to Jesus, when someone points to Jesus and our spirit says, “I want to go to there,” a few things happen in a specific order. First we hear. Then we believe. Next we repent. Finally we begin the process of sanctification. The life change comes last. The life change may include celibacy or “healing” or a spouse. Life change may include a zip code change, a relationship status change, a career change. Life change may include an attitude adjustment. Jesus knows what in us is not like Him, what in us is broken and rotted and dead and gross and needs to get the heck out and He’s committed the rest of our lives to getting rid of all of that junk. But that life change comes last in the process. It’s the longest and hardest part of the whole Jesus thing, but also the best and the most gracious and the most dang beautiful. We don’t start with life change. We start with listening. We start with love. We start with Jesus.
My hope and my prayer for that really cool kid who is now probably in some college somewhere being really smart and learning a lot of crazy things and playing a lot of cards is that he feels heard, he feels listened to, and that somewhere in the crazy mess of life he sees Jesus. That is my hope and my prayer for all of us.