Working with broken people is inevitable. We are all broken, some chipped, some shattered, some nothing but sharp pieces on the ground threatening to cut even well meaning people who are just trying to clean up the mess.
In a Sunday school class recently, a friend confessed, “I told God this week I’m done with his broken people.” And while we could all judge that statement, I have a feeling we can all also relate.
I took a pottery class to fulfill my fine arts credit in my undergrad. I was not great. My first little vase was about six inches tall and weighed about five pounds. But until the clay pieces went into the kiln, there was so much grace to be had. Even if something had dried overnight, if it wasn’t baked, it could be thrown back in with the wet clay and mixed until it became soft and workable again.
I don’t believe that anyone in this life has been put in the kiln yet. I believe we are all still workable.
Many of the students we encountered this school year were broken, severely, but also in varying degrees. Many students moved due to family dynamic changes, financial issues, and some because of traumatic life events that unfolded over the past school year. When I talk with other volunteers about the things our students are experiencing everyday, I can’t reconcile their experiences to the bright smiling faces that come for Reading and Homework Clubs. They are filled with humor and joy, even as they come from very broken situations.
But my friend’s confession didn’t end with “I’m done with broken people.” There was a request tagged on the end of that prayer. “…but don’t leave me out of what You’re doing with Your people.”
Some days the weight of what’s happening in our students’ lives lies heavy on our hearts. We pray for the students, asking God to save them. But I also pray for them that they remain soft, formable, ready for God to shape them. I pray that if someone breaks them that another has the grace to put them back in with the wet clay until they are soft again. I pray that I could be that person for some of our kids. Because it’s hard and sometimes dangerous work to work with broken things, but God, don’t leave me out of what You’re doing with Your people.
It’s a season of spring at Neighbors’ House. Not just in terms of the weather getting warmer, the trees getting leaves, and flowers blooming, but in the lives of the kids and families that we serve. It seems like every time I talk to a volunteer they have a story about a student responding to a Bible story, asking for a copy of the Jesus Storybook Bible we are using, or a parent asking for prayer and support.
One of the parents recently came to a volunteer with concerns about her daughter, who is entering high school this coming year, and her opportunities to go to college. The parent had not attended college herself and was wracked with anxiety and fear over student loans, financial aid, scholarships, and what seemed to be the impossible task of helping her daughter through that process. After talking through the subject at some length with her, a couple volunteers prayed with her and offered their help in the years to come when things get confusing with the process of sending her daughter to college. She thanked them, with tears in her eyes.
A few students who were at the Gideon Court Reading and Homework Club listened to the story of Jesus washing his disciples feet and the last supper a few weeks ago. We explained to them that all you have to do is believe in Jesus and accept the gift he’s offering to which they all shouted excitedly “we believe, we believe!”
God is breaking the ground in these students’ and their parents’ lives. But he’s breaking the ground in volunteers’ lives and mine as well as through the people we serve.
I was talking to a couple volunteers about how the program they’re involved with is going and they were telling me how blessed they feel getting to interact with these kids each week. They picked out a few and quoted a few of the things they’ve said recently with joy forming wrinkles around their eyes as they laughed about the indescribable way these kids lighten their lives.
I was reading Mark 10 and noticed that in the middle of Jesus talking about sex, money, and power, Jesus stops and calls the children to him. He looks at those around him and says, “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
I think of this now, when I go to our programs. I see the joy these kids have as they yell, “I believe!” These kids are hilarious and joyous and hopeful despite not having many people supplying them with humor, joy, or hope. And in the midst of the parent who is worried about sending her daughter to college, there are children who have no question about whether or not there is hope for their future. Without question they respond to Jesus’ gift of love and salvation by unbound shouts of “I believe!” This is what I think God is calling us to do. To be like them. To be undignified and throw away our doubts to shout “I believe!” like we are small children who have no reason to think God wouldn’t save us.
This time of spring goes by quickly as summer approaches. Pretty soon we will wake up to summer, where it is 80 degrees before noon and the sun warms through our skin into our bones. God has given us a time of Spring at Neighbors’ House, but what we are waiting for is the completion of the good work he has started in us. During the spring, may we all say “I believe,” so He can continue to do the good work in and through us, ushering us closer to the summer He has promised.
I’m just going to admit something. I am not crazy about volunteer recruiting. I hate asking people to do things for me. If I can do it all myself without asking someone else I will, even if it’s a large and complicated task. I was the kid in school who would get assigned a group project, look at my group and say, “if you all just leave me alone, I will do all the work.”
And a big part of the reason I don’t like to ask is because I know everyone is busy. People are overworked and feel like they need to go above and beyond at work. People have families they want to spend time with and homes where they would like to be in the evenings and weekends. Especially when I try to ask my teacher friends to give up some of their very precious and typically very rare time away from their jobs, I feel like I’m asking too much of them.
But I can’t do the whole job of Neighbors’ House alone and I think it’s an important and biblical matter that others get involved.
In Matthew 25 Jesus talks about the end times when the “son comes in glory” and how he will say to some:
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me”
“When?” they ask. They don’t know when they’ve done any of this for Jesus. But Jesus responds, “whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters, you did for me.”
Jesus loves the least of these. He loves them like family. Whatever someone does for my kids or my husband, in reality, they are doing it for me, because I love my family and I love when others love them too.
As Christians, whatever we do with our lives we are doing for Christ. This is not a check list. It isn’t like, “Fed someone, check! Clothed someone, check!” God is calling us to reach out, provide for practical needs as we approach people in love and grace and truth. It’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to fit on a cute piece of note pad paper. The service he calls us to is messy because people are messy.
As the church we have an understanding of tithing. We typically give 10% of our earnings back to God, whatever that looks like for the individual, it isn’t a requirement, but just a guideline to follow.
What if we had a something like that for giving our time? I don’t want to stray into being legalistic with this suggestion, but what if we all just had some expectation for involvement in outreach in our own communities? For some that might mean taking the first step of getting involved in outreach ministry in the community. For some it could be increasing the amount of time dedicated to outreach ministries. Others may want to lean more into their outreach connections during their prayer time or show up to their volunteer opportunity with a better attitude.
Whatever it may be for you, a tithe commitment takes sacrifice. When we went to buy a house this past year an online mortgage calculator told use we could afford a house we absolutely could not afford. But someone told me, “those things don’t take into account that you are giving, because most people in our culture aren’t.”
We sacrifice material things to tithe. What do we have to sacrifice to give time? Emotional things perhaps? It may mean giving up the luxury of the alone time we wanted, the shows we wanted to catch up on, the Saturday morning breakfast we want, the evening wind down we are used to. Some time is going to have to be sacrificed.
But I promise, the sacrifice and the mess will all be worth it. Not only when we get to heaven and Jesus says to us “what you have done for the least of these you have done for me,” but also when we start to realize the impact that building relationships with the least of these does in our own hearts.
The greatest secret I’ve learned from volunteering with different local ministries is not the self satisfaction of knowing that I’m doing something good. It is the change God has created in my heart through those I’ve served. It’s the true lessons God has taught me through the kid’s at Neighbors’ House.
And it’s one other thing too.
At the end of one of our programs, the kids know they get candy. I stand by the door with the bucket of candy and they line up and take a couple pieces on their way out. As they grab what they want and head back out into the world, I get to provide a little sweetness in what is typically otherwise a chaotic life for these kids. For some of them, Neighbors’ House volunteers are the only steady, constant people in their lives. When I’m at these programs, I get to participate in doling out the ridiculous, abundant, and steady love of God. And when I do, it feels like letting these kids, no matter what they’ve done that day, have some candy.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
It can be hard work to work with kids. Kids test boundaries and try patience. Often it is a thankless job and the only feedback given is what could be done better. People who work with kids often go their whole lives not knowing how many kids were affected by their teaching, their presence, and their love.
Jesus makes it clear in scripture that he values children. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Sometimes I find myself asking,”why?” Why does God value children? Why does he say they are, “greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Last Thursday a little girl came to Homework club a few minutes early. She took off her coat and signed in. I asked her how her day was and what she learned that day. She told me she learned about Michael Jordan.
“Oh yeah? What did you learn about him?”
“I learned that his dad was murdered because he had a gambling problem.”
Oh goodness. From the mouths of babes. Now, I’m sure her teachers taught her other things about Michael Jordan. She was learning about him for black history month so I’m sure they told her he was one of the best basketball players to ever play the game. But what she took from the whole lesson was that his father was murdered.
I texted this story to another volunteer who knows the girl and we laughed about it and in that moment I think I saw an invisible quality, almost like magic, that Jesus sees in children. There was innocence on the girl’s face as she told me what she knew about Michael Jordan’s dad being murdered, just recounting facts.
Jesus asks us to take the “lowly” position of a child, but I really believe he is saying this tongue in cheek because there are so many stories like this one. Stories where a kid has taken what may have been a mundane day and turned it around with one sentence. Ask anyone who works with elementary kids to tell a story about a time a kids said something hilarious without knowing it and they will have at least five locked and loaded.
There is a magic about kids and Jesus sees it. There is a joy in seeing these magic moments that puts all the trying times to rest. And there is a love, perfect and holy, that shines through the joyful but also the trying times with children.
When I find myself questioning why God values children, all I really need to do is spend one afternoon with them to see the invisible quality that God loves. And when I get to participate in that love, the gift is no longer being given to the kids from me, but to me from God.