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Culture
Rick Lawrence

Rick (rlawrence@group.com and @RickSkip on Twitter) has been editor of GROUP Magazine for 26 years. He’s author of the just-released book Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry (simplyyouthministry.com). He wrote the books Sifted (www.siftedbook.com) and Shrewd (www.shrewdbook.com) and the upcoming Skin In the Game (2015) as an excuse to immerse himself in the presence of Jesus.

Remember the heartwarming story about five-year-old Miles Scott, the San Francisco boy who’s battled leukemia since he was a toddler? Miles idolizes Batman, so the Make a Wish Foundation put out a request on social media to help make Miles’ dream come true—he wanted to be Batman for a day. The city, and 10,000 people who signed up to help via Twitter, made it happen. For one day, Miles became “Batkid.” He “thwarted” a bank robbery by a guy dressed up as the Riddler, “saved” a damsel in distress, and rescued the San Francisco Giants’ mascot from the clutches of “The Penguin.” A CNN correspondent gushed: “Today this five-year-old is teaching an entire city what it means to be a superhero.” The San Francisco police chief said: “Nicely done, dynamic duo, you’ve saved the city.” And even President Barack Obama weighed in via Skype with this: “Way to go, Miles, way to save Gotham.”

For a kid who’s battled a serious illness his whole life, this was a day to forget about the daunting challenges of his everyday life and plunge into a fantasy world. I’m sure he’ll never forget the magic of that day. And I’m sure many of the people who were captured by this story were reduced to tears. But what happened to Miles reminds me of something insidious about our culture, something that’s broadly applied to all kids, not just those who are battling leukemia—we believe that if we tell our kids that they’re all “superheroes,” they’ll experience that hyperbole as love. Our compassion, and sometimes our rage at the unfairness of life, drives us to offer false forms of love that look nothing like the way Jesus loved people.

I know what I just wrote likely made you really mad—don’t worry, I’m already mad at myself for writing it. I know what it’s like to live with a loved-one who’s battling a serious illness. And I know how important hope and joy are when you’re facing dark threats to what you hold most dear. But I think there’s a truth buried in my heartless diagnosis of this heartwarming story…

As a culture, and particularly as a Christian culture, we are addicted to false forms of encouragement. We lie to people to make them feel better about themselves…

I’ve written about this quote from G.K. Chesterton before, because it’s a bolt of truth: “If you meet the Jesus of the gospels, you must redefine what love is, or you won’t be able to stand him.” Jesus is synonymous with love—whatever He does, however He does it, defines what love really is. And He never lied to people to make them feel better about themselves or their life. Instead, He practiced what bestselling author Jim Collins has called “The Stockdale Paradox.” Jim Stockdale was an officer and prisoner-of-war in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War. He was imprisoned for eight years, from 1965 to 1973 and was relentlessly and ruthlessly tortured. But he survived the experience because he lived by this truth: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” Jesus’ love communicates to us that we will “prevail in the end,” but His love also moves us to “confront the most brutal facts of our current reality.”

The Jesus-recipe for love mixes a “faith that prevails” with a determination to live in reality. And I taste that recipe in this story that youth pastor Kevin Patterson shared with me:

“We have a student with mental retardation, but she’s pretty high-functioning. She kinda just hangs out by herself at youth group. But we have a really popular girl—she’s the homecoming queen—that has befriended her. She picks this girl up and takes her out for pizza, and so on. This Sunday, as we wrapped up, the special-needs girl’s mom came into our room to thank the other girls for befriending her daughter—she wanted to say that it meant a lot to both her and her daughter. The homecoming queen looked her dead in the eyes and said: ‘Why wouldn’t I? She’s an awesome girl and God loves her just as much as me.’ I lost it!”

Here a high school homecoming queen is offering herself as a channel for the love of Jesus—a love that never lies about “the brutal facts of our current reality,” but never stops believing that the beloved will “prevail in the end.” This is a love that transforms, not panders…

-Rick

@rickskip

2 COMMENTS

  • Lauren says:

    Why can’t this story be instead a beautiful example of the gospel, of the extension of grace, and love of a community coming together to create something incredible for this little boy? Was he not a hero for accomplishing the things he did? For battling illness, something that he could not control? I understand the thought process and the problems theologically with the “superhero” special snowflake and entitlement and privlege theology, but this did not seem like any of that. Perhaps it’s my own perception but I would love to read more examples from you and explore this concept more.

    • Rick Lawrence Rick Lawrence says:

      Thanks for responding, Lauren… Your “why can’t” questions are perfectly reasonable, even generous. I think my point is that the kind of empathy that drives us to over-extend our glowing descriptions of kids robs them of the dignity and power of real love. Probably, that seems un-generous—but I’d call Miles brave, determined, and perseverant because that is all true within the context of his battle with leukemia. But to call him a superhero who saved the city offers him nothing that’s real… I think we’ve been haphazard when we choose hyperbole to encourage rather than words that are grounded in truth and reality… But your point is well-taken—I’ve argued against myself in similar ways…

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