A little over six years ago I received the best gift I never knew I needed. It was neither my birthday nor Christmas. I even said, “No,” three times. Then, the fourth time someone asked me to try out being a youth leader at BelPres, I said I′d try it–but just once. I had a pretty long list of excuses to explain why I wasn’t going to be a good enough youth leader or about how I didn’t have enough time in my busy life.
My first night at youth group, a group of giggling girls sat near me. They had just completed the sixth grade. In the beginning of my time serving as a youth leader, I thought I was simply there to make sure no one got hurt, or to drive the church minivan on a retreat, or to conjure up some enthusiasm for a game where students would throw dodgeballs at my head.
Somehow the tables turned on me. My gift of service was no match for the gift I was offered in return. Those same girls I met that first night volunteering in youth ministry graduated high school this past June. These students have shown me Jesus in ways I never expected. In the past six years, I have experienced abundant joy through spending time with them at weekly small group, sharing life together over meals and coffee dates, cheering for them on the sports field at school, and going on adventures with them on retreats or mission trips. I simply just showed up, had fun, and listened to them.
One of the students’ favorite trips is Extreme Week, where we go river rafting in Northern California. The trip focuses on building relationships with each other and with God in the midst of some of the most beautiful surroundings imaginable. A few years ago, one of my small group girls was talking to me near the campfire one night. There were some challenges going on in her life. I got to pray with her and for her below the brilliant night sky. After we finished praying, we both just sat there and looked up at the Milky Way. She asked me if I had ever seen a shooting star before. “Nope,” I replied, “Have you?” She shook her head. We kept talking, and a few minutes later this quick light flew across the sky. We were both silent for a minute, in awe. God was completely listening and with us at that very moment. Problems back home, worries about the future or stressful situations didn’t disappear in that very moment, yet we were both reminded of His constant presence in our lives.
This past Extreme Week happened just weeks after these girls graduated. We remembered our first shooting star experience as the sky turned dark each night. I heard those same giggles as they were trying to fall asleep every night in the tent as I did on our first trip years earlier. I savored the precious words of encouragement they offered to me. I respected their courageous honesty in vulnerably sharing hard parts of their stories during small group time and admired the way they offered support to one another. I was impressed with their inquisitiveness as they reflected on what God might be calling them to after high school. I received the privilege of praying with them.
The presence of God is so tangible through their relentless compassion, thoughtful conversations, honest questions, and delightful enthusiasm for anything! Their genuine love for me was a completely unexpected gift that changed my world. Thanks, girls.