On Sunday, Youth Pastor Beau Gamble interviewed Luanne Marshall about today’s youth culture. Luanne is the Academic Facilitator at Kelly Walsh High School here in Casper. According to her, her job is to build relationships with kids who are “at-risk”. She said that academics are her door into their world, the first step to gaining their trust so that she can build relationships with them and love them. Beau talked to her about what she encounters while working with these kids on a daily basis.
There is no way I’ll cover everything Beau and Luanne talked about–even in what they shared, they only had time to scratch the surface of what our teenagers are dealing with. I do want to highlight some of what stood out most to me.
The conversation began with Luanne challenging the narrative about what an “at-risk” kid is. What do you think about when you hear that label? Chances are, you don’t think of church kids with good grades and a modest appearance, from good neighborhoods with good parents. The picture in your mind most likely looks nothing like that. Yet, there are countless kids who fit my description who are, in fact, at-risk. Sometimes at-risk relates to academics. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Beau asked Luanne, “What is an “at-risk” kid?” Luanne responded, “I was at risk.” She shared with us that she lost her mom when she was eleven years old. Her dad remarried a year later. His new wife was a widow. Between them, they had seven children. All of them were carrying the burden of loss and grief. And now they lived together under one roof–on the other side of town from where Luanne had gone to elementary school. She told us, “I was never at risk academically, but I was emotionally. I did not know how to articulate my pain. I was self-destructive, and others-destructive, because we don’t self-destruct all alone. People had no idea. It was not rebellion against my parents. I was trying to take care of my own pain the only way I knew how.” She also shared with us that she never wanted to reflect poorly on her dad, who was a pastor. She loves him dearly and was aware then of how her behavior could impact him. So she kept up appearances at church.
I was at-risk, too, but like Luanne, most of the people around me would never have known. My grades were near-perfect, I excelled in music, I wore a happy face–especially at church. But I spent my earliest years in an environment that was spiritually, verbally, and physically abusive. Not only was I not taught how to articulate my pain, I was punished if I tried. So I stuffed. And conformed. When I was eleven, two major events occurred in my life. My mom was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and my parents divorced. We moved four times that year, and I attended three different middle schools. I continued to stuff and conform for a few more years. I was both of my parents’ shoulder to cry on, my mom’s right-hand while she was sick, and I kept the peace in our family as well as I could. I maintained my grades and activities, while my emotional and psychological well-being continued in a downward spiral. By late high-school, I was self-medicating with alcohol and sex, living to be loved and accepted, and to be seen–even if it was for the wrong reasons. My parents, along with most of the adults in my life, never knew the extent of my self-destruction. I still maintained near-perfect grades and excelled in music and at my job. Mercifully, I survived that season of my life. There were many opportunities for me not to. I was at-risk, too.
As I ponder my experiences, along with Luanne’s, I wonder how many of you are nodding along as you read. How many of you were at risk, too, in one way or another. I bet the numbers are staggering… In Beau’s closing prayer, he said these words, “We’re all kids–some of us are just older than others.” Hearing those words instantly brought tears to my eyes. I’m still trying to discern why I felt it so deeply, but I think it was mostly because it’s so true. Most of us grew up not knowing how to articulate our pain, and for most of us, it came out sideways along the way. We all have different stories and experiences, but regardless of how wonderful our parents may have been, it’s unlikely that any of us made it into adulthood without experiencing some level of trauma. I grew up with parents who did the best they knew how to do, but no one had taught them how to deal with their own pain, so how could they teach me how to deal with mine?
Luanne told us that there were adults who loved her well throughout her self-destructive years. These people modeled the ways of Jesus to her. She said that they, “…loved me unconditionally, always,” and that there was, “no judgement, ever.” She said later on, “People aren’t shamed and judged into the kingdom of God. They’re loved into the kingdom.” These precious people saw beneath the image Luanne was projecting. They saw that she was isolating and in pain, and rather that grilling her about it, they simply loved her right where she was. It was clear as she spoke that she still feels the impact of these people in her life today.
These nameless people (they are not nameless to Luanne, of course, but they are to the rest of us) were a drop of love in the pool of her pain. That one drop created the first ripple in the wave of love that is now impacting hundreds of students each year. There’s no way to measure how many lives have been touched and changed because they took the time to see and love one hurting, at risk girl. That girl grew up to model the Christ-like love that was modeled to her, and now she’s the one who sees and loves the hurting kids around her. And she teaches others to do the same. She learned how to process her pain. She took the necessary steps to get help. She took the time to heal. She was willing to own her own stuff, and chooses to be honest about her own brokenness. She doesn’t try to change the world alone, because she’s learned that this life is a journey that we take together.
We can do that, too. We can learn how to articulate our own pain, how to own our own stuff, how to be honest about our brokenness. And we can do it in front of our kids, so that they can learn what we never did–how to process the pain of life rather than walk the road of self–and others–destruction. We can lead by laying down our pride and our walls, so that our kids can see that, while they are dealing with different things than we did, we’re not that different at all. We’re kids who are learning how to navigate the journey, too–we’re just a little older. We aren’t great at articulating our pain, either. And we need them as much as they need us. We can become aware, and we can be willing to learn about what we don’t know. We can choose to love people–not as projects, but as the individuals they are.
The things our youth are facing are daunting… They are growing up in a culture where suicides are commonplace, where constant standardized testing tells them they’re never good enough, where social media has replaced relationship, and sexting is an accepted part of conversations. They are a community of misfits who haven’t seen acceptance of diversity modeled. They are struggling with their sexual identities, their ethnicities, and the policies and systems that affect their lives in a world that is angrier than ever before. They are angry. They are scared. They deal with unprecedented anxiety levels. They learn active shooter procedures in P.E. They are addicted, and so are their parents. They are taking care of sick parents and mourning the loss of parents who chose suicide as their answer. They are a generation well-acquainted with abuse in all of its forms. They don’t have “safe spaces” to process all of this. They don’t know how to find the love, care, compassion, and wisdom they’re craving, so they look to their peers or to themselves for answers. Many of them see churches as judgmental and exclusive, some because they’ve experienced shunning from Christians. The Christian witness they hear often sounds angry and uninviting…
They don’t know how to dream of a better tomorrow–many of them have no dreams at all. It is dark, and it is daunting.
But friends, this I know… There is hope for a new day. Carolyn shared with us last week that “We are a people of hope,” and that God can restore and reach “far out to places you’d never imagine.” That includes the lives of our youth, this next generation to whom we will hand off the baton. We can all be one small drop that creates a ripple effect in the lives of our youth, the way that those adults who saw and loved Luanne created the first ripple in her life. Tomorrow is a new day, and it really can be different. It will take courage. And honesty. And time. And it will start small. But, remember,
“Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin…” (Zechariah 4:10a, NLT)
“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.” (Philippians 1:6, NLT)
We don’t do the work alone. In our own lives, as well as in the lives of the kids around us, our friend Jesus is the source. The starting point. Our model for how to love. He begins the work, if we’re willing, within us. And as we live out our journey of brokenness and healing in front of our kids, as we honestly own our stuff and make space for theirs, the love of Jesus will flow out of us and become drops that create ripples that make a difference in the lives of our kids… The story isn’t over. There are chapters yet to write. We can work toward a better tomorrow. There is hope. This I know…
There is always hope. As the people of God choose to put people first, to love them well, to meet them right where they are, things begin to change. God’s plan for salvation, for saving lives is through relationships. Salvation is not for the after life, it is for the here and now. As Laura wrote above, my life was saved because people who loved Jesus loved me right where I was. And yes, I am very honest with students about my own brokenness, I share with them nuggets that I learned in my therapy, and in so doing, I give them permission to be real. Sometimes it takes years to build a relationship, sometimes months, sometimes it happens almost instantaneously, and some students resist relationships altogether, but I still greet them by name when I see them. Nothing that I do is hard. I greet students by name. I smile. I make every effort not to talk down to them, I try to always treat them with respect. I “see” them, as do many other adults in our building.
Even still, I was part of a suicide intervention today. What Beau and I talked about Sunday is real. Our kids are hurting. Our kids are anxious. Our kids are afraid. Our kids are angry. Our kids don’t know how to express how overwhelmed they are. They don’t know what to do with their pain.
So I write to those of us who would qualify as older kids– are we in touch with ourselves enough to know our own brokenness? Our own anger? Our own fear? Our own hurt?Have we sought healing? Are we on the healing journey? Have we found healing? Are we sharing our journeys with others so that we have support, and so others know they are not alone? Would we be considered safe people for others? Are we able to hold their hearts, their pain, and their stories with the awareness that we have been entrusted with a precious gift–the gift of vulnerability, of confidentiality? Do we know how to do conflict well? Do we listen well? Are we pouring love, grace, and wisdom into the generation that is coming behind us?
We come together through the love of Christ into the Kingdom of Heaven on earth to experience and to share in one another’s sufferings and joys. Yes it’s messy. No, we won’t do it perfectly, yet through the messy of our shared humanity God’s kingdom comes and His will is done on earth. It’s slow, but it’s powerful enough to change the world.
As Laura wrote above: The story isn’t over. There are chapters yet to write. We can work toward a better tomorrow. There is hope. This I know…