The freedom of being known

'42-15443880' photo (c) 2011, Jessica Krizni - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/I’ve sat in her stylist chair every couple of months for nearly twenty years.  That’s two decades worth of haircuts and countless hours of conversation. This lady has seen me from brunette to blonde and now to mahogany. She has seen me through middle school, high school, college, and into my adulthood.

And this lady knows me.  I forget that sometimes, until I sit in her chair again, but she knows me.

When I came home from Michigan five years ago and I broke up with the not-nice minister boy and I went kind of wonky, she was the one who told me that Christ had my heart and I would find my way back to faith again. She was the one who believed for me when I didn’t, or couldn’t, and I will never forget that.

So, when I saw her this week and she asked me how life is at the big church, I answered with the kind of unbridled enthusiasm that accompanies being in the place you’re sure God has led you, because she knows me and there is some kind of freedom in being known.

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My hair stylist friend and I talked a lot about freedom yesterday, actually.  That’s probably my fault, because when she asked me about how the big church and my life since leaving the small church, I talked about how I feel like I’m walking in a new kind of freedom.

I didn’t know how I’d restricted and reined myself in while I was at the small church until I wasn’t there anymore.  And while not entirely the fault of the small church, I didn’t feel safe there.  Every time I got a tattoo, or read a Rob Bell book that I thought merited reading, or refused to help with Vacation Bible School, I got sideways looks and questions about the “solidness” of my faith from people who, after eighteen years, really should have known me better than to think I hadn’t brought Jesus into the tattoo parlor with me.

But, I stayed in the small church feeling unsafe for years anyway, because I loved the middle school and high school students.  And for years, that love was sustaining and it was enough.

Until it wasn’t anymore.

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In one of the last meetings I had before I left the small church someone with power told me that I wasn’t taking into account the influence I had on the students and that I wasn’t conducting myself appropriately, after  I tweeted that I was “taking a morning off” one Sunday.

And in that moment, I recognized how little he knew me.

Because if he knew me, he would’ve known about the love I had for those students.  He would’ve known about the hours I spent in prayer for them every week between Sundays.  He would’ve known that I thought about what I was teaching them not just from my whiteboard, but in the way that I lived my life.  He would’ve known that I never once lost sight of the influence I had with them, because it wasn’t lost on me that they were watching me be in the church and my friendships and my work, because they needed to see that who I was before them on a Sunday was the same person they might see wandering Target on a Thursday.  And he would’ve known that my “off” time meant I was at drinking coffee, reading my Bible, journaling and being still with God.

And so, this person with power doesn’t know me and he probably never will, because he never bothered to put the time in.

But…

The lady who cuts my hair knows me because she put the time in.  She’s listened to me, and prayed for me, and believed in me for the better part of two decades.  And when I was truly at my worst, she extended grace and faith and kindness.  And by doing that, she helped me learn to walk in freedom.

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Voices

'Colorful people' photo (c) 2007, Becka Spence - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

I have a story to tell that I haven’t told.  The story about how I came to leave my home church and find… Actually, I don’t know what I’m finding yet, but I know as much as I’ve ever known anything that God is with me in the searching and finding, whatever it turns out to be.

Voices months ago told me not to talk or write about my leaving.  They said it would disrespect people who care about me, and that it would dishonor my reputation as a leader.  They said it would confuse people, and that it would upset the teenagers.  They said sharing my private story publicly was inappropriate.

I sat in the office of the people to whom these voices belonged, and everything in me wanted to yell back: I’m a writer. This talking thing is what I do.  The sharing thing? We’re supposed to do that as Christians. We’re supposed to tell our stories, broken and tragic and hopeful and loving.  It’s how we stay connected.  It’s how we see God at work in the world, making life out of death and turning good out of bad. We’re supposed to do that in the Church.

Of course, I didn’t yell.  My time in that office, with those people, listening to those voices was done.

And it was never clearer to me than in that office that those voices were exactly why I left.

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Still, as it always is, leaving is a process.  It started gradually, years ago, and only those who knew me really well picked up on the small niggling in my heart that found its way out in occasional conversations. Then I started talking about it more. Then my first class of seniors, who I started teaching when they were freshman, graduated and moved on to colleges across the mid-Atlantic.  Then I took over more responsibilities for the youth ministry, and I lost myself in it far too quickly, and my students suffered for it.  They suffered for my unavailability and disengagement, and still they loved me where I was.  And then I felt like I owed them better than what I was giving them.  Then I stopped teaching Sunday school.  Then I didn’t take communion.  And then I left.

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And even though I left, those voices that lied to me all those months ago still play in my head.  Those voices are the ones that are stirring up my heart even as I type; worrying about whose reading this and what people will say at that church I no longer go to. But…

Those voices are drowned out by an even louder chorus now.  And this chorus is composed of my parents, my larger family, my friends, my students and youth leaders and parents, friends of my mom, and friends older than my mom.

And the chorus sings loudly, “Don’t you believe that for one second” and “Our girls are better because you were in their high school messes with them” and “We’re so proud of you” and “We’re praying.”

And the chorus sounds like the voice of God.

And for today, finding that voice is enough.

For the CBC Youth…and why you should do youth ministry

The hardest piece in leaving my home church will be leaving “my kids,” the students in junior high and high school who’ve welcomed me into their lives as their Bible teacher, mentor, and friend. For five years, we have lived side-by-side in a lot of ways, and in even more important ways God’s used us to improve each other.

And now I’ve been given the instruction to “go.” Where I’m going, I don’t know. Leaving might be less painful if I could say clearly that I’m going to Michigan or any other state or job or church or…something.  But, I can’t say any of that.  I only know that I’m stepping out in faith and obedience. And that faith and obedience offer assurance that it’s time for something different, but it doesn’t take the sting out of leaving youth ministry and my kids.

With that in mind, I wrote my kids a letter this week.  And their responses have been incredibly gracious and supportive and demonstrative of how well they know me. I’m sharing the letter here so that you can see my heart.  And so that, maybe, if you even have the slightest inkling to jump into the waters of youth ministry, I can encourage you to do so.  It will be hard and frustrating and tiring. But, more than that, it will be fun and humbling and incredible and softening. And I guarantee it will make you a better version of yourself.

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CBC Youth,

With a sad heart, but clear leading of a God, I have to tell you that my time of ministry at Calvary Baptist Church has come to an end.  Effective at the end of the month, I will no longer be teaching, serving, leading, or attending at CBC.

If time were infinite, I would sit down with each of you and share with you how I came to this decision, in the hopes that could provide you with some understanding.  I would tell you that being your teacher and friend over the last five years has changed me for the better, and I would tell you that because of you I will never be the same.  I would tell you how truly awesome I think you are, and how proud I am to have been someone you’ve trusted.

But time isn’t infinite and I can’t sit down with each of you, so I hope you take what I’m about to say personally.  I hope you own and live into it and remember when you’re adults that someone in your teenage past loved you and believed in you.

Leaving you is no easy thing.  In fact, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.  But, God doesn’t always call us to what’s easy.  In fact, I think following Him often requires us to do the hardest things, like leaving places we’re comfortable and walking into an unknown future.  Truth be told, I feel exactly like that’s what I’m doing – leaving what’s comfortable to follow God into an unknown future.  I feel like one of the Israelites in the passages of Exodus we’ve been reading: told to leave Egypt, promised they’d be taken somewhere good, but not given any details on where they going, how long it would take them to get there, or what would happen in between.  So, what I know and what I can tell is this – I’ve been given the instruction to go, and beyond that I don’t know much else.

Except, I do know that you will be okay.  In this church, you are surrounded by people who recognize how special you are, and who want to come alongside you and support and encourage you.  I know that you will be taught well, and that you will have good models of godly-living to follow.  I know it because that’s what Calvary has given me.

 I leave Calvary believing it a church filled with good people, you the highest among them.  In your youth, you are examples of what it means to be the light in the darkness that we as Christians are told to be, in your schools and workplaces, and on your sports teams and in your drama clubs and choirs.  You demonstrate genuine concern for the people in your life who don’t know Jesus, and you are intentional to love them like Christ, regardless of the nasty things they may say to you.  You humble yourselves to serve “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40), and treat them with the same kindness you show your best friends.  And you’ve taught me to do the same, in all of these things.

Now is your time to keep shining, to come together more deeply and more genuinely than you ever have.  Love each other, and enjoy each other. Be kind and be gentle, and treat each other kindly. Be peacemakers. And do good to one another.

Please know that I’m going from here praying for you, for you have been engraved on my heart.  I will look back on this time with you with fondness, for this has been one of the greatest seasons of my life.

God is good!

With more love than my heart can contain,

Amber

A thousand selves ago

Photo taken by Jenny Wassom, member of my Haiti team.

I’ve been promising a friend of mine that I’d post about Haiti for months, since I returned in the middle of July.  Certainly, there are stories to tell of Haiti.  I want to write about the beauty and poverty that the island holds in equal parts, and the way that God lives in the paradox.  I want to sit and describe at length the way that the people of that place took care and continue to take care of each other, and of the way that they took care of us for the eight days we stayed.  I want to tell you how full my youth leader heart was watching four of my students not just talking about Jesus, but being His arms and feet as we walked through mountain villages.  Maybe one day I’ll take those stories out of my journal and the recesses of my mind.

But, Haiti is a thousand miles away, a thousand lifetimes ago, a thousand selves ago.

I’m not sure at what point I became an adult, but I know it happened when I wasn’t looking.  At some point, I started being in almost daily contact with parents who need advice or affirmation or someone to talk to about how to best help their kids.  Now, I’m planning trips and taking responsibility for dozens of students, ages twelve to eighteen, just praying that they don’t get hurt on my watch.  I’m teaching them the Bible and trying to help them become people grounded in truth, and it feels weighty – in the best possible way – every week.  And I’m sharing my stories, starting them with phrases like, “Well, when I was your age…” and feeling every one of the years of difference between us when they don’t know who Dave Matthews is.

I think I became an adult when Dave Matthews stopped being cool.

But, I think I owned being an adult when I came back from Haiti and I came back from my Michigan vacation and our church experienced a trauma and I became someone with her hands directly involved in managing the crisis.  I owned being an adult when my responsibilities changed and I needed to buy a planner to just to hold the pieces together.  I owned being an adult when I owned that I am, with the other youth leaders, trusted by our youth parents in the midst of an ugly, messy season.

Now I know, nothing grows you up quite like a crisis.

For my students, I wish this weren’t true, because they’re growing up too.  They’re asking adult questions to adults who have no answers.  They’re realizing the world isn’t innocent, and that sometimes the people that you trust shouldn’t be trusted.  They’re discovering the far-reaching consequences of bad decisions, and they’re finding on a whole other level that when you live in community choices aren’t made in a vacuum.  They’re seeing that it’s far too easy to wear the label of “Christian” and much harder to walk every day engaged in a sanctifying relationship with Christ. They’re losing a sense of their innocence.

I hurt for them in all of that.  And I wish they could go back to who they were a thousand selves ago.

 But the LORD says, “Do not cling to events of the past or dwell on what happened long ago. Watch for the new thing I am going to do. It is happening already—you can see it now! I will make a road through the wilderness and give you streams of water there.  -Isaiah 43:18-19

Saving Me

She sat in the front seat of my Vibe, angry and fuming after a break up with a boy who didn’t treat her kindly.  We were on our way to a girls’ night, so there wasn’t much time to delve into all of the details, but I knew enough to share with her from my heart about my own experience after breaking up with a boy who didn’t treat me kindly.

Two years later and she’s moved away and isn’t riding in the Vibe, but we’re still emailing about who we’re dating. Now the conversations are different.  Maybe because we’re both older, maybe because the guys we’re seeing now treat us more than kindly, maybe because we’ve experienced God’s faithfulness in our brokenness.  Whatever the reason, our emails inevitably shift from boys and dating, to being open in those relationships, to being open in our personal relationships with God.  That this is the pattern we find ourselves in makes my heart fill up with love for her and for our friendship and for God.  And today, that’s saving me.

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She’s 19, she’s in college, and she’s so one of “my girls.”  She hasn’t sat in my Sunday school class or across from me at Starbucks in more than a year, and most of our contact these days happens over Facebook.  But, I’m still so proud of her, as if I were still involved in the day-to-day way that she lives her life.  She works hard in her classes, and takes her studies seriously.  She’s thoughtful about the kind of artist and person she wants to be in the world.  She and her boyfriend model a healthy, God-centered relationship.  And even though she has deeply invested relationships with other people, her relationship with Jesus is the most important.  And that reality bleeds through every post and text and email.

That I got to walk with her through her last two years of high school, that I got to sit with her and share coffees and pastries and real conversations, that I was invited into the deepest hurts of her life and allowed to help her figure out how to handle them with the love of Christ is a gift from God himself.

That she is not the only young woman who trusts me with her hurts, and wants me to celebrate her joys, and who thinks I’m cool enough to hang out with even though I try to stick to a ten o’clock bedtime is an overwhelming blessing.

Today, the emails I exchanged with one are filling me up with love not only for her but for the others.

Today, love for them is pointing me toward Love Himself.

And today, Love is saving me.

This post was written as part of Sarah Bessey’s synchroblog, “What’s Saving You Today.”  That’s fancy blogging lingo that basically means a bunch of brave, honest people are writing about the same topic.  Join the fun!

My Girls

Yesterday, I sat next to one of my seniors in church.  I don’t often sit with the youth during service because they just had to deal with me yammering at them the hour before in their Sunday school class, but sometimes I make exceptions.  Like, when one of my seniors who’s months away from being “one of my former youth” asks me if I’ll sit with her – that’s worth making an exception.

I have a soft spot for this particular group of senior girls. They were freshmen when I started teaching, though some of them have come in later, as sophomores or juniors.  They’re all “my girls,” though. And they’re going off to different colleges, and they won’t be in my class come August.  And that gets this youth leader thinking about what we’ve learned together and about what there’s yet to teach.

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You six wonderfully unique, lovely ladies have made my life better.  You have made me better.  You’ve challenged me in all the best ways through the questions you’ve posed in class, forcing me to delve deeper into the Word as your teacher and as someone who’s also trying to figure out how to best love the world like Jesus.  You’ve made me think about how I conduct myself in my friendships as you’ve asked advice about how to handle your own.  You’ve reminded me that God is honored by a child-like faith as we wade through the waters of adulthood.  For what you’ve taught me and for who you’ve helped me become, I will always be grateful. 

That’s the sweet part of this whole bittersweet graduation season.   My heart is full of love and of pride for the women you already are at seventeen years old, and I’m excited about the women you will become as college and life mature you.   The “bitter” part is that I won’t get to sit alongside you through it on a weekly basis anymore.   I’m going to miss that.

Even so, it’s right for you to move on, and this is your time to learn the lessons of goodbyes:  while they’re always sad, they’re not always bad.  It’s good for you to move on from our class and the youth group and summer camps.  It’s time for a new season, new challenges, and new people.  It’s time to grow up.

As you go, know that you’re supported by a home church that loves you.  Know that you’re on the path of becoming the women God’s created you to be. Know that God’s with you in all of it, in the darkest and ugliest places you may find yourself.  In the places where you feel like He’s abandoned you or left you in the stress of life by yourself, He hasn’t and you’re not alone.  In moments when you feel farthest from Him, that’s when your roommate or your friend from church or someone from home will invite you into a real conversation, one that’s not about the division of cells that you’re talking about in your Biology 101 class, but is about who you are and why they’re glad that they know you.  That’s when you’ll get a package of cookies from home, or a good grade on an exam that you studied your butt off for, or a text message from a friend that simply says, “I love you.”  That is God moving in the everyday life of a college student.  Keep your eyes open to seeing God in the everyday.  He’s there, and He hasn’t left you alone.

Lean into your friendships, and let people carry you through the stress that comes with learning to be an adult. You’re all in the same place, so you’re going to need each other to get through the break-ups and the fights with roommates and the bad grades. Call home and complain to your mom about your roommate or your philosophy professor or microeconomics, and tell her you love her while you’re at it.  If you live with roommates, clean up after yourself.  Wash the dishes, clean the bathroom, run the vacuum, and don’t leave your dirty socks in the living room because it’ll save you a lot of unnecessary headaches.  Every once in a while, blow off your school books and cramming for an exam and go hang out with your friends.  Take your studies seriously, though.  Don’t pull all-nighters if you can avoid it, because your work will reflect that your mind was running on coffee and not sleep.  Eat in the dining hall so you’re not spending extra money on food, but probably it’s okay to go grab a burger on the night the cafeteria serves scrod or catfish nuggets.  Find a Bible study or plug into a church or do something to keep you engaged in relationships with other Christians.  And don’t be in a rush to grow up.  You have the rest of your life to stress about health insurance and paying rent and all the other stuff that goes with being a grown-up.  Find a way to enjoy the biggest problem on your plate being a 25 page paper about C.S. Lewis’ ideas of love or Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis.   Don’t be afraid to change your major, even if you’re already a junior.  Realize that your path is unique and try really hard not to compare yourself to other people.  Find one professor and be intentional about developing a mentoring relationship because that’s the person that will write a glowing recommendation letter to help you find a job later.  Plus, they have loads more to teach that they can’t cover in a 50 minute lecture and you’ll want to know that stuff. Trust me on this.  Most of all, though, make the most of this next season of your life.  God can do incredible things through you and in you if you’ll let Him.

So, that’s it.  Go forward.  Become better.  Let God and life change you and grow you up. 

But, if it’s all the same to you, let’s not rush May, June, and July.  Let’s enjoy the summer together. And if I sit with you in church every once in awhile without you asking, know that it’s because I’m not ready to tell my girls good-bye just yet.

Thanks-getting

(c) 2009 vistamommy, Flickr // via Wylio

I hate my birthday.  I have always hated my birthday.  My mom tells this story about my first birthday, which ends with me reduced to a pile of inconsolable tears because they wanted me to eat my cake with my hands.  Even at my youngest, I liked utensils and napkins.  It’s, like, my “thing.”

Nowadays my friend Amy makes a triple chocolate amaretto cake for me and it’s way too good to make a mess of it. And because I know that cake was made with such love and happiness that I was born, it takes some of the grump out of me on that day.   But, I’m still not a fan of my birthday.  I detest being the center of attention.  This is also the reason that I’m a terrible compliment-receiver and thanks-getter.

I was thanked twice this week for things that seemed to me nothing I needed to be thanked for.

While I was at a girls night with some of the ladies from my church, one of my youth moms thanked me for my involvement with the group and, particularly, for being someone in her son’s life.  She talked about how everyone has different callings, and that she knows youth ministry is not hers but it is very clear to her that it is mine.  It was an incredible affirmation, a gracious gift from this woman who was once my Girls in Action leader and who’s witnessed me grow into my adult self.  Yet, I changed the conversation topic as quickly as I could back to the youth themselves, because I’d rather gush about them without end than spend even a minute focused on myself.

And my BFF thanked me for, as much as I can reason, being her friend.  She was sitting with her son on her lap and randomly, in the midst of helping her sister pack for her trip to Florida, said, “I know it has to be hard sometimes for you to see me nursing Noah and to have so many conversations that are baby-focused, but I just want you know that I’m grateful for you and I appreciate it.”   My response to these thanks, however, was very different than my response to my youth mom’s thanks.  I accepted it without hemming and hawing, because hearing the words were balm to a wound in my heart that I’d been trying unsuccessfully to salve with other things.

I’ve never questioned my position as a youth leader, and I’ve always believed God called me into this group of teenagers and leaders for this particular season.  I love Sundays because I get to sit with my girls and talk to them about who God is and how they can best model Jesus in their schools, and jobs, and families, and sports teams.  I look forward to the week of camp every year, to staying in the dorms and eating cafeteria food and not sleeping, because I get to serve alongside them and see God working in and through them.  When it comes to my youth, Jesus makes Himself known to me in ways that are fun, in ways that are easy, in ways that aren’t actually all that much “work” on my part.

When it comes to my mom-friends and their babies, though, I’m much less confident.  Because being a friend doesn’t feel like a “calling” and because, where I’m sure of how to be in relationships with my teens, I’m equally unsure of how to be in relationships with babies, since I don’t know how to change a diaper or heat a bottle or carry on a conversation with someone who lacks words.  I also have figured out that I have cap on how many hours I can talk about breastfeeding or exer-saucers or poop.  Where I feel like I “fit” as a youth leader, I feel much less like I “fit” with my mom-friends.  Sitting through conversations about breastfeeding and exer-saucers and poop is work.  Learning how to change a diaper and heat a bottle is work.  Being a friend when I don’t know how to relate or feel like I’m contributing anything to the conversations is work.  Yet, Jesus is making Himself known to me, though it’s in ways that aren’t easy and that aren’t always fun.

Sanctification sometimes works like that, I think.  Sanctification, the process by which we’re all made a little bit more like Jesus, is sometimes easy and sometimes, maybe more often, very, very hard.  Sometimes we’re going to see God plainly, and sometimes we’re going to have to look for Him.  Sometimes we’re going to feel like we’re exactly where we should be, and sometimes we’re going to feel anxious and displaced.   Sometimes we’re going to be teaching, and sometimes we’re going to get taught.  The key, I think, is to always be surrendered to the process, whatever it looks like and however it comes, taking the easy with the hard.

And sometimes all it takes to remind you that God is using you to make a difference in the world is a getting a “thank you” from a mom who’s glad you’re following your calling. And sometimes all it takes to remind you that God is drawing you closer to Himself is getting a “thank you” from your friend who’s glad you’re doing life with her, even though it’s hard sometimes.

All this to say, as difficult as it may be for me to receive it, I’m beginning to think that thanks-getting has its place in the sanctification process.

Thank you, Jesus.