I remember my first mission trip. I was fifteen and I had to beg my parents to let me go. July couldn’t come fast enough. I couldn’t wait to go to Tijuana. July did come, and quickly. We flew into San Diego where we jumped into vans and began the transition from the United States to Baja California. The change in scenery was stark. We went from palm trees and green lawns to brown trees and brown lawns. Dirt, dirt, and more dirt. It was the first time my eyes were opened to true poverty and I will never forget that moment crossing the border.
Moving forward eight years and here I am watching the same expression cross the faces of the fifteen-year-olds on a mission trip that I’ve planned. Their eyes dim as they see the poverty in the small mining town of Mannington, WV. They ask questions like, “Why are there so many fallen down homes?” or “Do people really live in those houses?” Their minds are racing with questions and fears. However, mine is silent. When I look around it doesn’t affect me and I wonder, have I become desensitized to the people I’m ministering to?
The question lingers there in the air along with my own self-condemnation. Am I lukewarm? “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16). The words scare me. I get very silent, very quickly. That is until a thirteen-year-old pulls me out of my reverie and into another nervous, absurd question about our schedule that I can never possibly answer. My thoughts get tabled for the moment.
As the week progresses, I have little to no time to tend to myself. There is hair that needs to be braided, games that need to be played, drama that needs to be dealt with, and important conversations that need to happen. Not to mention the parents that call me to tell me that, “Anna can’t find her sleeping bag and she’s cold. Can you find her sleeping bag?” There are so many issues going on around me, so many kids asking for things, needing personal time, and just wanting to hang out. Each one needs a piece of me and I need to be prepared for what they need and what they don’t even know they need yet. My thoughts have to wait, even if I know it’s never going to stop looming in my conscience. And it looms there, heaving, until Thursday.
On Thursday, I come back to the high school already exhausted. As I enter the room thoughts of finishing up our project and washing the dust/paint mixture off my body consume me. After braiding and straightening and spraying hair, I finally take my shower and then find my way to the infamous “cry night,” when the youth come face to face with the realities of forgiveness. There are a lot of tears. Even the boys are crying. Even some of the adults are crying. That night we drive over to the Dairy Queen to spend some time processing. We sit in a circle, with blizzards and slushies, and I ask eighteen youth to tell everyone what they’re thinking.
What happened in those next few moments quieted my thoughts and questions completely. We all started to talk. Youth started to share. They started to open up to one another. As I listened to stories of mean step-dads, dead grandparents, lost friends and deep scars, I knew that God was working. I was aware of some of what was going on in their lives but not the full scheme of it. Life started spilling into our mission trip and I realized that I was not lukewarm at all.
Our Buddhist girl jumped up from the circle and started walking away briskly. I quickly followed her to tell her she couldn’t go far. As I approached, she turned to me and words fell out of her mouth, “Is it too late to forgive someone?” I told her Jesus was always ready to hear our words of forgiveness. She told me she wanted to forgive the man who beat up and robbed her mother earlier that year. I gave her a hug and we stood there–me praying for her and her crying, muttering words of forgiveness. That moment meant more to me than any new eye-opening experience.
The truth is that the lukewarm feeling that we sometimes get as youth workers really has more to do with our understanding of how our role has changed from what it once was to what it now is. Our focus is no longer on our spiritual development and growth but it is on the spiritual development of the ones we bring with us–the ones who God deems should go with us. Our experiences are not as important as the experiences of those around us. Granted, our reward seems much greater (in other youth workers’ and my opinion). This should seem obvious to us but sometimes we need the extra jolt to remind us that we have been called to true servant-hood.
As we rode home that night, I thought about the last week and how I had thrown myself completely into the care and tending of this flock entrusted to me and how the Lord sustained me and was still sustaining me. I had a great group of adults there to help me, I had a great group of kids, I even had a good state of mind. I wasn’t lukewarm; I was on fire. I was His tool–all His. Nothing compared to knowing that I was the living, walking, breathing story of the Gospel. Like the “books” from Fahrenheit 451, I was the walking Book. I had countless other conversations that week with youth and every time I could hear the words of God move from my mouth in the most unusual ways.
I left that week with my doubts behind me and hopes for a new confidence in ministry. Because after all, in all my worry about being lukewarm, it was really about God working through me. It is really God who sets us on fire. “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:2-5). Without Him they were nothing, but with Him they were enabled to do anything.