I live a fairly luxurious life. I work a few days a week in a job I love, have a coaching business on the side and use the money from both for extras like martial arts classes for my kids and massages for me. As I write this, I am sipping on a perfectly concocted fruit smoothie made with organic berries, over-priced pea protein powder, organic powdered greens (because I’m too lazy to chop the kale that’s in my fridge) and coconut oil. I just had a mid-morning two-mile run in the park to work out the lactic acid left in my limbs from the personal trainer I pay to kick my butt for 30 minutes once a week. I live a blessed and extravagant life. I realize this.
But I have a problem.
I need a van.
I have, you see, been messed up by God. It’s highly inconvenient, this messing up that God does. It is certainly not in my game plan, which surely, He must know. Apparently, however, God doesn’t really care about my game plan. He cares about my heart, and showing me the Kingdom. And making me more like him. Which is great and all, but me and my humanity had other ideas.
Here it is. If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I run a mentoring program for my church, in conjunction with the Newark YMCA. The program at the Y receives kids who are on probation from a neighboring county. They come to the Y where they can enjoy the facilities, attend life training workshops, and get a meal. For many of these kids, it’s the only meal of their day. Some of them are illiterate, and do a great job of pretending they aren’t. Most are in gangs, many are running “street businesses”. Some are incredibly apathetic, with no self-esteem. Some are all swagger and teenage bravado. All of them are children. My mentors go and spend a few hours a week with the kids, talk about life goals, and hang. We all go on field trips together or to special events.
I get to coordinate these mentors who are far braver than I. I am great at coordinating. But I don’t like getting personal. I’m uncomfortable making small talk with gang members.
I’m learning that God doesn’t give a hoot about my comfort zone.
The program is 14-weeks and is a condition of their probation; if they don’t attend, they go to jail. Some don’t make it to graduation. But many of them do — and they ask to come back. They beg their probation officers to be re-referred into the program because it’s a safe place for them to go to get away from the gangs, from the streets, from inattentive or possibly abusive family members.
Which brings me to the problem. There’s only 14 seats on the van.
Kids with incredible potential — kids who want to be nurses and architects and business owners and artists — who do well in the program, and start to think maybe there’s a different life they can choose, a different future, get removed suddenly and with no real explanation from the program by their probation officers. Or sometimes they get removed because they’ve acted out. Or they just graduate from the program, and there’s too many kids in the probation pipeline who need to go to the Y, so they don’t get re-referred. Or they’ve already convinced their probation officer to re-refer once, and now their time is up.
So kids who have done great — improved their behavior, started to make the right choices — they end up back out on the streets in 14 weeks or less, right where their problem started to begin with.
Of course we hope that they have discovered something during their time there so that, when faced with a decision on the streets, they’ll make a different one than they’ve made before. But that might be asking more of them than we ask of ourselves. What habit are you trying to quit? Struggle much? Cave lately?
So my volunteer leader, Stan, and I have started thinking that maybe God is up to something here. That he’s placed our church, and our mentors, right here, for such a time as this. So that kids like Ralph, Tyrell, David and others can keep coming to the program, have a safe place to go to and a meal to fill their bellies, and caring adults who will guide them and encourage them to become their best selves.
The kids are open to this. Look. Easter Sunday fell on 4/20 day this year. You know what that is, right? National Weed Day. They were planning on celebrating — and not with pink and green Easter Baskets.
It was after hours in the church office. I had just listened to a very disheartening story from Stan about the depth of — what is it? Separation from their own souls? From God? This horrible training they have gone through in the streets? Stan had sat in on a group session with the kids in which they laughed about how one of them had recently mugged an 80 year old. They were laughing about it.
I know. Makes you want to lock ’em up and throw away the key, right?
Except — and here’s where the God messing me up comes in — I look at these children (because that is what they are) and I grieve. I grieve the way God is showing me he grieves for them. I mourn for their dead souls, their dead lives. How far must they be from him and yes, even from their own humanity, that they would think this is funny?
And yet in another moment, they can become child-like again, tell a story that would break your heart, and remind you that they are God’s creation, that they are still passionately loved by the Messiah who died for you, too. Your Messiah is their Messiah, and he’s just waiting for them to turn around and look at the cross.
But through the whole conversation, Stan said, there was one kid who shook his head. Who told them they were messed up for laughing. It was our David. David is our leader in that group. He is the kid who used to curse out the staff at the Y and now is on the straight and narrow. He is small in stature and big in swagger and when I think of him, I think of King David. I see that much potential.
David is scheduled to leave the program. Soon.
Which is why I need a van. I need a van so I can make sure that David and I have the opportunity to talk about how he reminds me of King David. So that I can bring him to meet the music producer I met a few weeks ago. So I can speak life over David so that he’ll know he has a choice.
I was NOT planning on getting this involved.
So there I was, after hours in the office, standing at my desk, staring into space and wiggling a pen in my fingers, thinking about how a need a stupid van. My pastor came by and said, “What’s your problem?”
I need a van.
I told him about how these kids are getting sent back to the streets. I told him everything. We talked about possible solutions. And then he looked at me and said, You’ve been messed up, haven’t you?
I told him about 4/20 day. He said what I’d been thinking — can we get them to church? I sent a text to Victor, our contact on staff at the Y. I was almost half joking, not really thinking he’d take me up on it. He said he’d ask the kids. We LOL’d together and I sarcastically texted, Good luck with that.
A few minutes later a text came through: Man, did you pray or did Pastor pray or what? We have five kids coming to the 11:15 service on Sunday!
They came dressed in their Sunday best. They slept through some of it, made fun of us through some of it, and disagreed with some of it. One kid kept shaking his head like we were all crazy. And he talked along with Pastor’s sermon about ancient Roman theology — because yeah, this kid knew what Hades is. At one point, they bobbed their heads to the music, but they may have just been joking. But for 90 minutes, they were somewhere other than the street. They weren’t smoking a joint. They heard that Jesus loves them. They got a bagel in their bellies. They were welcomed into the house of God.
And afterwards, one of them came up to me and said, I want you to be my mentor.
That was NOT in the plan. I am the COORDINATOR. Remember, God? I COORDINATE.
Hear God chuckle?
You’re so cute, he says. Now go get your butt to the Y.
And that, my friends, is a calling. There is no subtle God. I mean, I know God speaks in a whisper very often. But just as often, and probably out of necessity, God will hit us with a frying pan. I want you to be my mentor is pretty much a frying pan from heaven. There was nothing subtle about the cross, and there is nothing subtle about the fact that God wants me to mentor this kid. The truth is, God has made himself loud and clear regarding redemption. I mean, the cross changed our calender, it changed our culture, it changed history. There is no avoiding the cross. You can ignore it — but that’s a different thing entirely, and carries far more responsibility. And God has made himself loud and clear about my mentoring this kid.
So I will go to the Y on Thursday. I will go and hang out with this kid. See some of the others. I have no idea what I’ll say. I will be totally outside of my comfort zone, stepping out of the boat.
The only thing I have going for me is that Jesus will be there, ready to be in the middle of it.
Hopefully, he’s bringing a van.