Last night I said goodbye to a nine year tradition of spending nearly every Wednesday night with a bunch of middle school and high school students. For the duration of those years, I would come in after work, lead the kids in a song and then teach them about the Bible, Christianity, and what it meant to actually take Jesus’ words seriously.
When I showed up at the church last night, I stood in the empty room and wept. At times, I wish I could say I was made of “sterner stuff”, but last night I wasn’t ashamed. Our student ministry was never a big group. Less than a hundred and fifty ever walked through our doors over those nine years. Normally, we’d have fifteen or so guys and girls sitting around, and together sharing that experience of divine molding and shaping.
One of the first memories that flooded my mind last night was one of a particularly stressful week five or so years ago. My work week had consisted of hammering out after-hours code for a website while maintaining crazy daytime hours at my tech-support job. That Wednesday, after attempting to convince a bunch of boisterous teenagers that this life is much better with Jesus, I herded a number of them onto a Ford 14-passenger van to drop off at their houses.
Arguments and name-calling were regular occurrences, but this night had resulted in actual punches being thrown. At my wit’s end, I pulled the van over to the side of the road, separated the guilty parties and gave a desperate lecture and appeal in hopes of establishing a temporary treaty. Things only seemed to continue to boil over, and by the end of the drive, I had pulled over on the side of the road and announced that this would be my very last Wednesday night with them. I could do it no longer.
As one of my students was getting off the van, he saw my visible frustration and heard my resignation and just replied, “I love you, Jamie.” I broke. It took everything within me to regain composure enough to drive the last student to his house, and upon getting there, he refused to get off.
This particular student had been a great kid, but had certainly given me more than a few white hairs on my head. He sat there in the passenger seat of that van and said, “I’m not getting off ’til I know you’re okay.” Bowing my head to the steering wheel, I cried and cried. I was frustrated that I had let the week get to me. I was frustrated that I hadn’t been strong enough for the kids and finally had it. In short, I was frustrated that I wasn’t perfect.
Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit and that stubborn student, I got through that evening, and continued on as the youth pastor.
Last night, I remembered that there had been a lot of really tough days, but I also remember all of the really incredible ones. I remembered how God used my obvious weaknesses to remind me, and hopefully my students, of His vast strength.
We have one last event with our students, and I’m sure there will be a plethora of stories shared. I’m sure there will be lots of laughing and probably even more crying—that’s the kind of folks we are. No matter what though, I think I’m crying most out of gratitude.
I’m thankful that even though there are a lot of days that I look at Jamie Howard and see only faults, God has allowed him to play some small part in the lives of a bunch of snot-nosed, bad-tempered, yet incredibly inspiring students who I really believe are going to change the world.