Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Adventures in Youth Work

We’re back from our family vacation. But I’ve already left for my next adventure.

I’m not sure if I’ve said this before but I was sort of named for my great-grandmother, Jane Hash Stuart, who was often called “Janie Go.” Family legend has it that Great-grandfather Stuart came home at lunch one day and suggested they take the whole family on a road trip to California. She was packed by the time he got home that night and they left the next day. And were gone for three months. I come by my sense of adventure honestly. It’s genetic.

Right now, if all has gone well, I am with a few hundred teenagers at Mo Ranch for Junior High Jubilee. When I get back from that, I will go to the Senior High equivalent event in Tulsa. You might think this is a lot of trouble to go to just to get current on the latest electronics. But I can guarantee I will learn far more from the kids than they learn from me. And I usually get a story or two to write about.

I know it has changed my life for the better. But then, I cheat. I’ve been going to these retreats about five times more  than the average high school kid has. They only get to attend as a youth for four years. Me, I’ve been going maybe 20 years. I think my first year was 1991. Yeah, 20 years.

One of the things you hear people say about the Synod Youth Workshop in Tulsa is that it is indescribable. But I’m going to try.

The goal as a small group leader for the week is basically to create a community of faith out of 12 people who have never met each other. Well, just how in the name of John Calvin do you do that? You play a lot of games. And listen carefully.

I never knew who I would get in my group. I used to have this conversation going with God. One year I had four cheerleaders who dressed alike and talked alike and would periodically link arms and dance around giggling “Oh, I just love you, you’re so much like me.” And it drove me nuts. I prayed: “God, you gotta give me some people with more depth. I need more of a challenge.”

So the following year I had a boy who must remain nameless but who is famous in Synod Youth Workshop folklore. Everyone who was there that year remembers him. He had raging ADHD and never stayed with our group. He flitted around campus without much regard for the schedule. During keynote he never sat with the group that I was supposed to be building into a cohesive faith community.   I KNOW that God loves this kid but I also suspect that he is slightly sociopathic.  He told us he had sprayed silly string at the principal at graduation and called him an asshole. This prompted the principal to withhold his diploma. And what did his parents do? They sued the school district. What was even worse was that this kid was a natural born leader and it was starting to affect the rest of the group. I sat up one night re-reading our covenant looking for a loophole to send him home.

At the end of that week I told God, “Don’t you EVER do that to me again.”

The following year I had four Eagle Scouts in my group.

I figure God and I are even and I'm just going to keep my mouth shut.

Running a small group is like conducting an orchestra. Sometimes you can’t hear the flutes for all the noise the trumpets are making. And the music is jumping around all over the place with no rhythm or clarity. So then you try to listen harder for the flutes and encourage them to play a bit louder. Sometimes the music doesn’t need flutes, it needs a saxophone or a clarinet or a French horn. You need to spot the instruments you’ll need and know when you’ll need them. Invariably, somewhere in the symphony the trumpet is cleaning his spit valve when his cue comes and you think the music is ruined without his sound. But then you realize that’s OK because now you can hear the flutes. And their music is so beautiful that everyone wants to just sit and listen. But you are at the end of the symphony and you need a grand finale and you look over and the trumpet player is ready and you give him the cue and he blows a loud, lone, lovely sound that you can hear from miles away and the whole thing is so beautiful that it makes you want to cry.

For this one lone note of purity you spend the whole week using every trick in the book from wild dancing and service projects to a labyrinth walk. Then you try to stay out of God’s way. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t . But it happens more often than not. And I’ve learned to not beat myself up if a group doesn’t grow the way I think it should. I’m not really in charge here. If I’m doing my job right, I’m not in charge at all, God is.

I just get to go to the concert and hear the music God plays.

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