“Prayer is weakness leaning on omnipotence.” W. S. Bowd
“Prayer does not change the purpose of God. But prayer does change the action of God.” Chuck Smith
“Our prayer must not be self-centered. It must arise not only because we feel our own need as a burden we must lay upon God, but also because we are so bound up in love for our fellow men that we feel their need as acutely as our own. To make intercession for men is the most powerful and practical way in which we can express our love for them.” John Calvin
“Men may spurn our appeals, reject our message, oppose our arguments, despise our persons, but they are helpless against our prayers.” Sidlow Baxter
In my lifetime I have worked with kids for many years, in many different capacities. I have been a tutor, a babysitter, a housemother, a Big Sister, a mentor, a youth leader, a godparent, an aunt, and a friend to many kids. Usually it has not been a difficult thing. I love kids and drawn to them…..especially teenagers…..and have enjoyed the time I have spent with them. On one hand it is very easy to see them as the magnificent works of art that God has created. But lest you think I see it all in a rosy light, I don’t. Some of the most profoundly discouraging times in my life have come in the midst of these relationships. As some of my fellow youth leaders and I used to remind each other “Youth ministry brings life’s highest highs and lowest lows.” And that roller coaster ride is constant and travels quickly.
Yet it is in my relationships with teenagers that God has most clearly shown me so much about my self – my own sin, my tendency to judge when loving would be more appropriate, and my incredible inadequacy to handle any of it alone.
One of the first big examples that comes to mind was a middle school kid that I worked with years ago. Oh, I just couldn’t stand that kid. I can’t tell you why…..I just had a physical aversion to him. At first it was just a low key thing that I barely noticed. Then I did, and I dreaded every time he was in the vicinity. He wasn’t a bad kid….just annoying to me for some reason. Incredibly annoying. This was around the time that I made a commitment to pray for every kid I worked with regularly, specifically and by name. The prayer that came to mind for him was “Lord, please help me love John.” (Name has been changed since I would hope if he ever read this he would not recognize himself, nor would anyone else who knew him!) For that whole year I never got beyond that prayer. Which is bad in itself since that was a prayer that was more about me than for him!!! He deserved far better, but at that time it was all I could give.
After that year I moved away for a couple of years. Later I moved back to that city and started working with high school youth. This kid was part of that group. The first time he saw me he got a huge smile on his face and ran up and hugged me. I hugged back….and meant it. It was overwhelming to me. My prayer was not answered in a day, but it was answered over a period of years, yet suddenly and overwhelmingly. I loved him. We had an easy relationship after that and there was always mutual respect. And love. Not grown by me, but grown by God. Humbling and magnificent.
Then there was another kid in a youth group…..a high school boy…..who just had a bad attitude from day one. He didn’t like anything…..and was not afraid to share that with us. Our lessons were stupid. We went to concerts and the music was stupid. All of us….stupid. Really there wasn’t much he liked about anything and he quite resented the fact that he had to spend time with any of us. But then he went and did it. He got himself in a situation where he had to volunteer at a camp for handicapped children. He told me afterwards that day one he still had a bad attitude. He was not there because he wanted to be there, but he had offered to help to be polite, not ever intending to really do it, but someone took what he said to heart. When they got in a bind and needed another counselor for this camp they called him, and it put him on the spot. He didn’t know how to get out of it. No excuses came to mind. So there he was, a counselor at a camp for handicapped kids. For two weeks of his summer.
During his time there, however, something changed. He started caring about the kid he was assigned to help. He started caring about the other kids. He started seeing his bad attitude and was ashamed. He started seeing God as more than an esoteric being, but as someone who wanted to use him in this world. One of the greatest things I have seen God do is change this guy’s heart over a period of years, developing more and more compassion for people. Now as an adult he lives as a servant to the world, with a sacrificial and loving heart. For me his life is a microcosm of God at work….in praying for him from the early days until now, I have learned so much about how lives and attitudes can be changed, completely and profoundly. These days my prayers are of thanksgiving and as a cheerleader. “Use him more, Lord!”
And then there is a woman, who when she was the baby was the granddaughter of my Sunday School teacher. When she was a baby she had a health problem….a tumor, I believe it was…..and I remember praying for her. There’s something about a baby with health issues…..even as a selfish teenager, it grabs at your heart. So I prayed and remember being happy when it was determined that she would be OK. Prayer answered. Which was pretty cool in itself, but way better in later years when I ended up being her youth leader (in another church, another city) and seeing what an amazing young woman she turned out to be. There was something very special about having had her grandfather (who died before she really had a chance to know him) invest in my life and teach me so much about the person I wanted to be, and then later in a small way being able to invest in the lives of his grandchildren. I still pray for her and her brother today…..and know that their grandfather would be pleased. When people make investments in our lives, sometimes we get to give a little back.
Usually in youth ministry I felt that I was so inadequate for the task. First of all, who was I, the big fat sinner, to presume to teach kids anything. Then, I really don’t have any special gifts that make me good at youth ministry. I’ve never been the cool type….I’m way more the nerd. Often the kids were far more “good” and “spiritual” than me. Thankfully pretty early on God taught me the verse found in I Corinthians 3:7 “So neither he who plants or he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” It changed my life. I didn’t have to be good, I didn’t have to be adequate, I didn’t need all the answers. All I needed to do was to live a life that pointed them to God and away from me. Though even when I didn’t do that well (because let’s face it…..all most people see is our hypocrisy), it was OK. God was going to reach them as God was going to reach them. The Holy Spirit was going to do its job and convict them of sin….I didn’t have to. And I got a front row seat to watch God at work in their lives.
The heart, the luxury, of my ministry with youth (with people in general) was and is prayer….not just for that day, not just for a season, but for a lifetime. These days the kids I have known still come to mind on a regular basis and I still pray for them, by name and as specifically as I can. Some I know where they are and what they are doing, some I don’t. But still I pray. And as at the first, God reveals answers in His time and not my own. Yet when I catch glimpses of some of them as good friends, loving family members, caring parents, servants of God, kind people, those who stumble and get back up, and people who are increasingly becoming more joyful, exuberant and wise…..I see prayers of the ages answered and God at work. For those who haven’t quite found their potential and purpose….I still pray expectantly, fully expecting to see them get there. Because their story is not over yet, and I still get to be on the front row watching God, the author and perfecter of their lives, at work.
I like that quote that says that our prayers can’t change God’s purpose, but can change God’s direction. I believe that to be true and I want to be paying attention and taking advantage when it is necessary. I also believe prayer is the greatest expression of love. If I believe that God is in control of the universe….and I do…..bending his ear is my superpower. If you are one of the “kids” in my life, know that you are special….you are a commitment that I took and take seriously. And today, as you deal with grown up problems and the stresses and strains that life brings to your door that sometimes break my heart, know that I will continue to use that superpower to petition God into action on your behalf. While often we feel that prayer is the least we can do, the truth is that it is the most powerful thing we can do. With it we can change God’s direction, and in that change the universe.
So for “my kids”, and for any others who may be reading this, my prayer for you today is the same simple one prayed by the saints throughout scripture for the people in their lives…that my Lord will be kind to you and give you peace. Amen.