So my first new undertaking will be a humble one, but one that I enjoy. In 30 years of working with teens I've met hundreds (thousands?), and I am beyond grateful to say that I frequently get to reconnect with them in some lovely, and sometimes surprising ways. Occasionally I have written about them before.
It happens enough to me that I've decided to be that much more intentional about recording them here -- for reflection, for sharing, perhaps even for teaching a thing or two. I wracked my brain for a creative name, but couldn't come up with anything other than "FSE" -- which stands for "Former Student Encounters." I'm open to nominations to call it something else. Just be nice about it :)
Unless it seems terribly necessary, I will not reveal the name of the person I am writing about. Not only do I often talk about very personal things with them (which, have no fear those of you who are former students, I do not plan on sharing in detail with anyone) but ultimately, it can be a distraction. My only goal in sharing these encounters is to continue to taste and understand a deep truth I keep experiencing in my life -- what Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has titled "The Wisdom of Stability."
By living in the same place for so long, I have gained something I missed out on as I grew up, where I moved midway through kindergarten, and again after second grade and then once more after fifth grade. Not having a "home plate" as a child felt like a distinct loss for me, and I vowed that as an adult I would anchor somewhere. Needless to say, I am grateful that I stumbled onto this little town called Santa Barbara!
But I will heartily defend myself by saying I haven't stayed because I surf or like to work on my tan. I have remained because I started working with teens as a senior in college, and couldn't seem to shake the addiction! Commitment to students kept me here when I graduated, and then one thing led to another: first an invitation to work for Young Life full-time, then another eleven years later to plant a youth group from scratch, staying for fifteen years. Somewhere in the midst of all that I learned this truth articulated so well by Jonathan:
In short, stability's wisdom insists that spiritual growth depends on human beings rooting ourselves in a place on earth with other creatures... I am convinced that we lose something essential to our existence as creatures if we do not recognize our fundamental need for stability. Trees can be transplanted, often with magnificent results. But their default is to stay.
Thus for "FSE #1" I will share a delightful little encounter I had today as I headed out from my parents. I had re-connected with this young woman a few months ago when she wrote me out of the blue to tell me of some big changes in her life. I asked if we could catch up next time our schedules coincided. Happily, she readily agreed.
As we sat over lattes and breakfast during this chilly morning, I was deeply moved as we caught up on her story. I knew she had wandered around quite a bit once she graduated from high school, but beyond that I knew little. This was what she'd written in an email a few months ago:
Boy Kel, did I stray. I don't need to get into that because what's done is done and all that, but I can tell you that if ever someone was to go through a selfish phase, I sure had mine. But guess. what. Kel. I'm happy to tell you that about 2 months ago, I renewed my relationship with God!! Praise Jesus!!!!!!!!!!
(I love the multiple exclamation points. Hilarious.) Anyway, this morning in person she focused on how this return got started... It happened near the end of college, when she finally admitted to a deep ache at what she had lost -- the depth of friendships, the support, and the space to share the hard and meaningful stuff.
She made some half-hearted attempts to find a church again, but finally moved and found a worship community that really made sense. She was blown away by the their sensitivity, and crawled back to God. What stood out to me? She could not shake the still, small voice calling her back. And she realized she didn't have to have it all together. In humility, she opened her heart again. And she is so relieved.
We explored a bit as to why she thinks she did what she did after high school... maybe she was angry, and she definitely was insecure, shaken (I found this interesting) by a teacher or two who felt the need to take her down a notch. Anyway, while she has deep regrets, she is also thankful for her return, and the deep assuredness she has that she does not want to wander again.
I mostly listened (smiling the whole time!), but also felt it was important to acknowledge the remorse I really sensed in her words. I told her to let Jesus keep healing the shame, and to not believe the lies of the past. It was time to move forward and regain the calling she once had to lead.
She asked me how I have persevered over the years, and not been too discouraged by the many hard things I've experienced and heard over the years. I paused. Then I thought, Well, actually, I have been deeply discouraged at times, and told her that. But I just camped on what I know -- that it really helps to spend time with the Lord each day, even just a few minutes, to read and pray and reflect on what is really important. And also, as she has rediscovered, to be deeply connected to God's people.
Then she asked what she could read. I showed her a couple of daily emails I receive, that often serve to "stir the pot" of my soul. I pulled out my iPhone and together we read today's excerpt from Henri Nouwen:
A Nonjudgmental Presence To the degree that we accept that through Christ we ourselves have been reconciled with God we can be messengers of reconciliation for others. Essential to the work of reconciliation is a nonjudgmental presence. We are not sent to the world to judge, to condemn, to evaluate, to classify, or to label. When we walk around as if we have to make up our mind about people and tell them what is wrong with them and how they should change, we will only create more division. Jesus says it clearly: "Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge; ... do not condemn; ... forgive" (Luke 6:36-37). In a world that constantly asks us to make up our minds about other people, a nonjudgmental presence seems nearly impossible. But it is one of the most beautiful fruits of a deep spiritual life and will be easily recognized by those who long for reconciliation.
We simply smiled at each other. It pertained so perfectly to what we'd just been talking about. It was a definite "God thing," and we celebrated.
What did I think about when I got back in the car? That it pays to pursue, as Eugene Peterson teaches, a "long obedience in the same direction." Ironically, the subtitle of that book, first written in 1980 and re-released in 2000, is "Discipleship in an Instant Society." (I guess this whole "as-Christians-we-need-to-slow-down-and-stop-being-so-frantic" thing has been a drumbeat for awhile!)
Regarding this former student, she certainly didn't need judgment from me. The tears in her eyes as we talked about the past few years made it evident to me that she was entirely aware of (and grieving over) the mistakes she'd made. I simply needed to be like the father of the prodigal, running back down the road to greet her as she returned.
As Nouwen says, we need to buck the trend in society (and in the church!) and not make up our minds about other people. May we see each person with the eyes and heart of Christ, and offer unconditional love. In this way, we fulfill our calling to be ambassadors of reconciliation:
So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now!
This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!
And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation.
So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. (2Corinthians 5:16-21)
Whom can you reconnect with and listen to this week?