It was well into the darkness of night, and the hot air hung heavy on our group as we sat together, tears streaming down our faces.
Our large team of middle school students sat huddled together, sixteen hours from home on a mission trip in Colorado, sobbing on each other’s shoulders. We had just learned of the unexpected death of one of our team’s family members, and were struggling with feeling his pain and the emotions that freshly bubbled to the surface for many of our students who had just lost a close friend right before the trip.
It was nearly the worst-case scenario for any youth leader: to be far from home, having to inform a child that his young relative was deceased, and handling the unstoppable pain of dozens of students reliving the reality of death again, after just starting to heal from the death of a classmate merely weeks before.
For me, it was one of the most challenging situations I’ve ever encountered in my life. For the second time in just a few weeks, I hugged one student after another to a shirt that was soon soaking wet with tears. I watched my co-leaders sit on the floor for hours, bravely handling doubts and fears and frustrations that were pouring out of these wounded kids. I stayed up for hours, praying with kids and making plans to get our student home for his cousin’s funeral.
Late that night, our group gathered outside on a small sidewalk to do our nightly devotion. Our students clung to each other as I started talking to them.
Suddenly, our entire team of adult leaders came sprinting out of the bushes, wielding gigantic squirt guns. I turned and got hit right in the face with a blast of water, which caused the mournful group to start screaming with laughter. The kids scattered wildly across the parking lot, dodging streams of water and chasing the leaders.
Another leader tossed me my squirt gun, and I started spraying the students around me. I was quickly tackled by two of my football-playing students who are both quite larger than me–and as the three of us fell down, grappling for the squirt gun and laughing hysterically, I had a fleeting thought:
This is one of the unexpected joys of middle school ministry.
Sometimes, in the midst of our biggest struggles and most unbearable pains, God gives us a little glimpse of something incredible–our whisper of hope in a time when things seem the darkest.
And seeing our group of teens run around, screaming with happiness even though their faces were still wet with tears of sorrow, was a whisper of hope when we all needed it most.
I’ve handled so many heartbreaking moments in my short few years of ministry that it almost boggles my mind. However, to boil down the emotions, the connections, and the incredible and undeniable ways I’ve seen God work every day into cold, logical words just doesn’t do justice to what actually happens.
We are able to witness God in action in powerful ways with our own eyes, in kids who have not yet been jaded and become closed off. That simple fact itself is a true joy.
I wrote my reaction to our emotional experience in our mission trip blog that night:
“Watching our group handle this tragic news and rally around the student whose family will be forever devastated by this loss was nothing short of gut-wrenching and overwhelmingly emotional and tearful–yet awe-inspiring, powerfully moving, and something that turned our group into a family.
“As we sat late into the night, clasping each other’s hands and crying together as we hurt for one family, each person prayed. It’s always a challenge to get our entire group to pray–but last night, inhibitions were gone. Each student cried out powerful prayers to their Creator, clinging to Him in their time of sorrow and confusion.
“Last night, I watched young teens grow up right in front of me, turning from unchallenged students into men and women of faith that has been tested and true.
“Last night, I saw thirty-six people–some of whom had never even met each other before this trip–become each other’s biggest allies.
“Last night, I saw kids speaking words directly from the Holy Spirit–words that answered doubts, built each other up, and affirmed each other in ways that human beings simply can’t do.
“In my mere words, it’s impossible to convey how powerfully the Holy Spirit moved–but He most certainly did, and not a single person on this trip can walk away without being impacted by it.
“Last night, God was incredible. And we were all privileged enough to witness it firsthand.”
While every day certainly isn’t a mountaintop or valley experience like this was, we do know that the Holy Spirit is working in every moment. And in our darkest hours, in our biggest mistakes, and in our most stressful circumstances, God is there.
As Romans 8:14-17 tells us, “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
And with that reassurance and the uplifting hope of an eternal life with Him, we definitely have something to be joyful about.