As some of you already know, I get to work with teens on a daily basis. I’m a community youth worker working specifically with mostly vulnerable or “at risk” youth. Part of my job in the summer includes working out at camp, and this past Summer I had one of the most challenging weeks of youth work ever. Working with hurting people is hard. If you’ve had any experience with ministry of this type or even just connecting regularly with someone who’s hurting, you can probably relate. I decided to share a little bit about what I’ve been working through in the last year and I’m praying that you’re blessed through it too.
At the start of the tough camp week I referenced to, we begun with a devotional message that centred around spiritual warfare. I went into the week already feeling apprehensive and anxious, but I had no idea why. We took time as counsellors/staff to walk around the camp praying over the week and specifically praying for spiritual protection. Even during that time I couldn’t voice what I was feeling but I knew the Enemy was at work already. I couldn’t have guessed just how relevant and powerful that message would be for me later in the week.
Just one day into camp I already felt completely at the end of my own abilities. It was unlike anything I’d experienced before in my two and a half years of youth work. I literally felt powerless and totally unable. Unable to deescalate situations well, unable to love well, unable to have the peace and patience that I needed. Somehow the dynamics between the five girls in our cabin were so chaotic and unhealthy. I won’t share many details for the sake of privacy but it was a really tough week for me. I lost a lot of sleep, went to bed in tears several nights (and those of you who know me know I don’t cry easily…) and felt an overwhelming desire to quit. Satan plagued me with thoughts of not being good enough. He convinced me that I’m not cut out to be a youth worker and caused a mini identity crisis for a couple days.
One night in particular things had escalated totally out of control and I had no clue what to do except pray. I remembered from our first morning devotional a phrase that the pastor had encouraged us to pray if we were in a situation exactly like this: “I lift up the cross of Christ and everything it represents between me and right now…that whatever passes between us must pass through the cross of Christ.” I prayed that prayer for myself and the girls, and also for between the girls. Within the next half hour the situation deescalated and became calm enough for everyone to finally get to bed. Jesus totally answered that prayer and by His power and grace I got through that night.
With each day I expected that things would get easier, but God had His own way of answering my prayers. In some ways things got tougher as the week went on, but Jesus faithfully provided me with everything I needed to get through each challenging situation. The biggest miracle of all was that He gave me supernatural love and compassion for these girls that had pushed every button possible and spoken hateful, malicious things to me. I had a quiet moment where I had a bit of time to retreat away with Jesus and it was in that time that He gave me such a profound revelation. It was as if He was telling me that the way I was feeling was the smallest glimpse into His loving Father heart.
How can it be humanly possible to carry a sincere burden for the soul of someone who wants to push you away? How is it humanly possible to have compassion and love for someone who says they’re sorry and that continues to do the same hurtful thing over and over again? Who would be able to continue to forgive, knowing that it will happen again? How could someone rationalize risking and giving themselves for the sake of loving someone who’s hurting? All of these things I experienced and wrestled with were just the smallest glimpse into what our perfect Father endures daily. His heart is grieved by the sins and pain of His beloved creations.
Man, I can’t even fully explain to you how deeply this week impacted me. I really needed a significant amount of time once arriving back home to reflect and ask Jesus to speak to me and I want to share a few things that I’ve been chewing on in the process.
Dependence on Christ.
Firstly, I just need to honestly acknowledge how hard it can be to love “the least of these”. It’s not just handing out a blessing bag or buying a meal, making a cash donation or occasionally doing a good deed to feel better. Loving those who are considered the outcasts is actually a lifestyle pattern Christ calls us to…and it’s insanely difficult. It requires perseverance. Resiliency. Compassion. Unfailing love. Humility. Surrender. But what I realized about all of these things is that it’s tough enough on a normal day to live this way with people we love. So loving hurting people requires a dependency on Christ unlike any other. Completely leaning in to His provision. Learning to daily say, “I can’t…but You can.”
“I haven’t come to save the righteous, but the sinners.”
I don’t know about you, but lots of times when reading through the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life I’ve mildly skimmed over the fact that Jesus spent SO much time with broken, hurting, imperfect people. Back then it was a BIG deal to invite someone into your home or go into someone else’s home- it wasn’t just a visit, but a declaration to anyone who sees you that you’re allowing yourself to be associated with this other person. Considering the way their society was set up back then, it would have been outrageous to the self-righteous pharisees that Jesus would allow Himself to be tainted by all of these cast out people that He hung out with. But He was showing them a new, Jesus-centred community that defied the way things were done. A new pattern for His people. In the gospel accounts we see examples of Jesus bringing together the “unlovables” into His family. He welcomed them in without expecting them to first change. He showed them love and created an environment ripe for sharing the gospel to listening hearts that had first been touched by His love and compassion.
Don’t limit God.
I realized at one point that I had totally fallen into the temptation of limiting what God was capable of doing. One of the first few days I had sort of resolved to go into “survive mode” and just get through the rest of the week with as few incidents as possible. But then I felt convicted as Jesus asked me, “how great is your faith, Jen?” I realized that my own assumptions, judgments, personal limitations and human reasoning caused me to totally be hindered in my faith for what God can do. I decided to freshly grasp onto the promise that He desires for ALL to be brought to repentance and bear the life of the Spirit of God. I started looking to the different truths about God’s love for His children and His eternal purpose to restore His life to His people and found great blessing in doing that.
Carrying the paralytic man to Jesus
There’s the well-known story in Matthew 9 of the men who bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus to be healed. This story is one of our mission statement scriptures at YFC, but I think it took on a new meaning for me after my experience at camp last week. Have you ever thought about how powerful it is that Jesus uses ordinary, imperfect people? He wants to use you and me too. He just asks us to have enough faith to pick up and carry the hurting to His feet, and He’s the one who does the healing. I newly realized the power of interceding on behalf of these kids as I appeal to the heart of Jesus.
We won’t always see the fruit.
Towards the end of the week I had the opportunity to hear a story that encouraged and re-energized me to minister to these hurting girls I was working with. One of the girls who was in my cabin 3 summers ago shared her story, which she gave me permission to share with you now too.
Shiloh Youth Ranch is an incredible camp that focuses on bringing in kids that might not get to go to any other camp. Whether for financial reasons or behavioural reasons or whatever else. These kids are some of the toughest- and it isn’t really your typical camp experience. Shiloh invites these broken, hurting kids to come for a week of camp and a chance to be a kid. A chance to be in a safe place and to be loved by leaders and to hear about the love of Jesus.
My coworker Aislinn and I worked together with another camp leader and ended up with a small cabin of 4 girls. It was my first summer working out at Shiloh and it was an awesome week. 3 out of our 4 campers opened up a lot that week. We had amazing, raw and real campfire talks every evening. We often ended up being the last group at campfire as the girls shared their hearts and fears and desires. I remember that as leaders we did a lot of listening, but we also did a lot of sharing truth and speaking Scripture into their lives and situations. We prayed over the girls and daily reminded them of their value and worth in God’s eyes, since that seemed to be a recurring theme that emerged.
Anyways, fast forward back to this Summer. H shared her story with the camp staff with the purpose of encouraging them that God is working behind the scenes even when we don’t see it in the moment. She shared how her first time at camp had been with Aislinn, myself, and Rae as her leaders. She recounted how she had been pretty closed off that week. She rarely shared and didn’t contribute much to our “heart talks” as a cabin. She found being at camp really tough and wasn’t sure she’d want to come back. Later that year she struggled a lot with her sense of worth and was feeling pretty done with everything. She contemplated taking her life. But then she remembered truths that we had spoken into her life at camp that summer. She thought back to scriptures we had shared and how we had constantly reinforced the fact that she has worth, she has value, and she is created with purpose. This changed the trajectory of her life.
She’s now doing life together with Jesus and learning and growing and it’s so exciting to see how she’s changed. Her smile is contagious and she has such a servant heart to love other people. She doesn’t have that wall up anymore that we saw in her 2 years ago.
So…why do I share this story? Because this story gave me hope and renewed courage for my challenging week at camp, but even more…for loving people even when it hurts. It taught me to turn my eyes away from myself and onto Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith. It’s Jesus who speaks to the soul. It’s Jesus who convicts and saves. It’s Jesus who transforms- and He does it on His own timeline. Our piece in H’s story was short. We couldn’t have guessed how Jesus would continue to work in her life over the next couple years, but we simply did our part for that short week that we got to spend with her.
Often we don’t get to see these beautiful victories and transformations that might happen months or years or decades after our time with someone. But every once in a while we get a small glimpse into the behind-the-scenes work that our Mighty God is doing. It’s awesome that He invites us to be a part of His Kingdom work. He just asks us to be present in the moment, to show up and be available, to have eyes and ears to recognize the needs and hurts of those around us. It could be your friend, your neighbour, someone from Church that you don’t even know much about, a coworker… it could also be a call to step into something much more scary and unknown like working with specific groups of vulnerable populations in your city.
Regardless of what those specifics might look like for you, Jesus calls us all to step humbly alongside Him into this beautiful ministry of reconciliation. I love that He allows us to be a part of it with Him.
For some Scriptural references I would encourage you to check out the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry. Yup, I won’t be more specific than that! If you take the time to read through it all you’ll see some beautiful parables and stories that help to understand Jesus’ heart for the hurting, the new precedent He set for going into broken communities and inviting the broken into our communities, and the highly relational way He shared gospel truth with others. As you read your Bible, both new AND old testament, I’m praying you’ll be so freshly in awe as you see a greater picture of the Father heart of our God.
“See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.”