I spent this past week living on a small houseboat with bunch of freshman boys on Lake Shasta. While living in extremely intimate quarters with 70 teenagers (4 houseboats) can be quite intimidating (and odoriferous!), it was not what intimidated me most about this time.
Having committed to speak for this annual “Houseboats” trip close to 6 months ago, I wasn’t expecting the phone call I got from the youth pastor about a month before the trip was scheduled to start. When he told me something terrible had happened to one of his students, my mind began to race as I reflected on my years as a youth pastor. In short, two teenagers had been building sand tunnels during a youth group beach day and the tunnel collapsed with both of them in it. While one was quickly and safely uncovered, the other was buried so deep that it look around 15 minutes to free him.
This teenager is one of the core upper class boys in the group and many of the teenagers stood on the beach as they worked to free him. Without a heartbeat or lung activity, he was flown to Stanford where they were able resuscitate him, but he remains in a coma.
Listening to the youth pastor share this story nearly brought me to tears and I wondered, “What in the world am I going to have to say to teenagers who are wrestling through such a horrific tragedy?” From a pastoral perspective, I wondered if my coming to speak was even the best idea.
Two things stood out to me at this point:
- The radical bravery of the youth pastor to navigate these rough waters, while shepherding the rest of the teenagers in his youth group. The level of intimate community that was developing among the teenagers was unbelievable as they gathered to pray for their friend every night for three weeks following the accident.
- This was a story I could relate to on an intimate level. Sorrow and suffering while remaining faithful to the hopeful Story of God have shaped our lives (Jan and I) for the past two years since the loss of our first child.
Unlike any other speaking opportunity I’ve had -- and as much as it terrified me to walk into this fragile context -- I knew this was one I had to faithfully step into. The “speaking” would be secondary to simply coming alongside these teenagers in their pain, questions and potential hope.
The week was awesome. We wrestled through the Story of God and the reality that we are called to faithfully live in the way of the Cross (pain, suffering, self-sacrifice), while trusting the reality and hope of the Resurrection (past, present and future). I honestly shared about our loss and told stories of hope that have been birthed out areas of pain.
These teenagers were/are INCREDIBLE. I have rarely seen such a tight knit community who were so adamantly seeking to be faithful to Jesus in light of difficult circumstances. The boy’s younger brother was on the trip and led the way in maturity and transparency.
It was honor to share life with this community for 6 days. And as is often the case, I went in to do the teaching, but in the end, I was the one that was being taught through the lives of these teenagers and their heroic leaders.
What would these teenagers’ lives look like if they experienced this tragedy outside the context of rich community? Are our youth ministries creating and embodying atmospheres that are safe for teenagers to wrestle through the most difficult life realities?