Sunday, January 12, 2014

To My Colleagues in Youth Ministry, On my Nephew's Birthday

Today is my oldest nephew's 12th birthday.
When he finally does join Facebook, I'm sure he'll murder me for posting this picture of him, but I just couldn't help it. That white/blond hair...those eyes...that little smirk? I obviously have an endless supply of more current photos of him, but I still have this picture in a frame in my office. I just can't replace it.
I have no idea how that happened.

I was just shy of 22 when I became an aunt for the first time. I was living in Canada and was millions of miles away from Caden for the first couple of years of his life. I was young and in college and had no idea that I was missing out on one of the greatest things that would come my way in this lifetime--being an aunt. 

Just 11-days ago, on January 1st, I marked the milestone of being in full-time ministry for a decade. For ten years, I have worked with kids Caden's age (and older). In my first few years of ministry, my nephews (and their parents) were a part of the church that I served. One of my very favorite "distractions" in my day was when Caden and Tage would come bouncing into my office. They'd sit at my computer or play with the countless knick-knacks on my desk. I had their artwork hanging from all of my bulletin boards, my students loved playing with the boys, and I would dream about the day when they'd be old enough to be in my youth group.

Well this year, Caden entered 6th grade. This is the year that I had been waiting for. This is the year that he could have joined my youth group. As life would have it, we have both moved on to different churches after all these years. He is exactly where he needs to be and while he reminded me on Christmas day that I "get him" cause I "hang out with kids his age all the time," it has given me a unique perspective into the work that I and my ministry peers do on a daily basis.

I have only ever known a life of working with adolescents. I still was an adolescent when I began working with them. I have to admit that somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought that I would eventually "outgrow" my love for working with students. It never happened.

But today, on my nephew's 12th birthday, I want to look at those in youth ministry from a different perspective. Today I want to thank my peers in ministry not as a colleague, but as the aunt of a 12-year-old.

Thank you to Caden's youth pastors and volunteers who are teaching him not only the Word of God, but that he is valued and relentlessly loved by the God of the universe.

Thank you to all of you who endure retreats and lock-ins, camps and conferences. Who listen to unending piles of questions that prevent you from actually explaining the very game that they are endlessly questioning you about.
Thank you for the hours that you spend in scripture so that you can model a life that reflects Christ.
Thank you for driving odd-shaped buses, 15-passenger vans, and other people's cars to get to events that took you months to plan and will take you weeks to recover from.
Thank you for your care of and patience with parents who are doing the best they can with what they have, during the most difficult season of parenting.
Thank you for planning and playing silly games, not because it's your favorite thing to do, but because it helps create an environment where my nephew is safe and cared for and having a good time.
Thank you for creating space where his friends are free to be themselves.
Thank you for welcoming his friends and for caring about them in the name of Christ.
Thank you for teaching my nephew and his friends that they don't have to wait until they are 'grown ups' to make a difference in this world. For providing opportunities for them to change the world now. For modeling kindness, justice, forgiveness, mercy, and what it means to have the heart of a servant.
Thank you for showing kids that they are accepted by God just as they are, and also loved by God enough to grow more fully into the person that they were created to be.
Thank you for withstanding all of the meetings, planning, and administrative work that has to be done in order for you to be able to pretend you don't do any of that when a kid pops in and needs to talk.

Caden has two unbelievably amazing parents who are incredible role models to him (and to me). Were they to do this parenting thing alone, Caden and his brother would still turn out to be amazing people (they already are, actually). But what a gift it is that their parents entrust them to the care of their pastors who walk alongside them as an additional reminder of God's love.

I spend the majority of my time with high school and college students at this phase of my life, so I have an inkling of what's ahead for Caden and his friends. But for all of you who are walking alongside them during their tumultuous middle school years...from the heart of a very lucky aunt, allow me to say "thanks."

Creating space in which kids are safe, cared for, welcomed, loved and able to know and learn about the unfailing love of God, is my greatest joy in life. And so to those of you who are doing that for my nephew and his friends--and for all kids his age, Thank you.

Happy 12th birthday, Caden. I wasn't an aunt until you came along and it is my very favorite role in life.