A good friend dropped by my office last week to chat. I don’t know if you can go into a deeper conversation nonchalantly but it’s what we did. I think my mind has a way of protecting my heart from the heavy things so I can share them with others without completely losing it.
I told her the story of what happened to me my first year in youth ministry. As I was telling it, I realized that I haven’t shared this with many people. It wasn’t until then that I thought that maybe someone else needs to hear my story, about how a teenager broke my heart to the point where I questioned youth ministry altogether and wondered if I could really give my life to working with them.
Here’s what happened–there’s a lot more to it than this, and maybe I can share with you in person someday about the rest but for the sake of my point, I’ll keep it short
March 6th, 2002, nine months after college graduation, and seven months into my first youth ministry I found myself sitting in my office at church over one thousand miles away from home listening to my mom cry on the phone.
His name is Denver. At the age of 17, he broke into my grandfather’s home desperate for money and a car. My grandfather was out of town working but Mary Jo–his wife and our step-grandma–was at home. It was days before her body was found. Denver had used a cutco knife from the kitchen to slash her neck….twice.
I was in shock as I flew home for the funeral. It was my second time helping a family through a funeral. I would never have guessed that it would be for someone in my own family.
Unfiltered thoughts that ran through my head:
How could a teenager be so brutal?
What happened that made him so desperate?
Am I wasting my time with teenagers who ultimately will do whatever the heck they want anyway?
Why? Why? Why?
That kid is sick.
Our family had already been through so much. Just months before, my 17 year old sister gave birth to twins. She had to make the hard decision to take her baby girl off of life support when her lung collapsed. My first funeral was held in my parents living room with my family and the smallest little bag of ashes I’ve ever seen. It was heartbreaking. Suffocating.
Here I was, pouring my heart into teenagers when my own teenage sister needed me and another teenager who I wasn’t related to was giving me every reason to quit my job.
But here’s how the Lord works when a teenager breaks your heart–when you suffer through many trials–when you do things you never wanted to do—EVER.
He gives you strength and whispers purpose into your ear. In fact, it was these two events that I now say gave me the fire in my gut for youth ministry. God told me two things that day during the funeral that Denver caused:
1) Denver needs me just as much as you do.
2) You were created for such a time as this.
God told me three things the day I held my sister as she cried over her daughter’s ashes.
1) Humans make mistakes, but I never do.
2) Love each other as I have loved you.
3) I wept with my friends and family. Weep with yours. You are blessed when you mourn because you will be comforted.
Over the years teenagers have broken my heart in other ways. The worst pain comes when you know a student is making progress, you see life change, there is hope. Then, they make a choice or decision that leaves me helpless to do anything. Usually it leaves them in a huge mess that I can’t help them with. It’s heart breaking.
But I know, as much as I know that God loves me, that God also calls us to the least of these. I know that God calls us to be Good News and preach Good News regardless of what we might get in return.
Our reward is in heaven. I forgive Denver for a senseless killing. I have compassion for Denver because I know that somewhere along the way a desperation led him to a life that he couldn’t undo. My sister forgives me for not being around like I should have when her baby died. I was scared. I didn’t understand my role as a pastor and leader if I couldn’t even help my own sister. It was a similar desperation that led me to pray like I’ve never prayed for a clear call and strength to do what God has asked me to do.
God’s love is revolutionary. We find it when we are desperately seeking it and when others are desperately seeking other things we’ve get eyes to see through the desperation to their hearts in need of Jesus, in need of the Kingdom, in need of love from people who understand it all.
If a teenager has broken your heart and you’ve given up. Don’t. God has your heart. He gives you courage. He makes all things new. If you, like me, haven’t backed down, you know that you’ve sort of set yourself up to be hurt. But at the same time, you’ve set yourself up to see the miraculous work of God in people’s lives as you minister to them.
I never thought I would ever blog about Denver. But I know that forgiving him an forgiving myself have made this pastor real–alive–motivated–relentless–and humble. Praying that your broken heart would lead to the same things and more as you discover the riches found in Jesus the healer of broken hearts.