Burden or Blessing
Updated: May 24, 2020
Today's post comes to you in disjointed stories as I stitch together the lessons I'm learning and the lies I'm rooting out of my life. Please bear with me in this patchwork quilt of a post.
The center piece of the post is a haunting message from one of my favorite podcasts. A couple weeks ago, I was deeply convicted by the hosts of The Fringe Youth Worker Podcast going back and forth about the agony and aches youth workers feel when students don't listen to their good advice. Sometimes you need to discern whether your wisdom is a blessing or a burden in the life of the student, TJ said, and when you pull back, the student will figure out pretty quickly for themselves which one it was. I immediately texted Givorgy the podcast, and we later talked about how many students in my life this has been true with. I ache for the kids who've walked away from Jesus, but my voice was only a burden to them when I shouted warnings about their poor life choices. There are other students I've had come through my classroom who return to me for advice when they are struggling. There are other kids who consider me a vending machine of insight and objectify me to justify their actions. I am responsible for going to God for discernment as to where I spend my time in calling out and encouraging kids in order to bear the most fruit for God's kingdom.
The fruit metaphor is another patch on this weird quilt of today's post. I want there to be fruit of following Jesus in my life - love, joy, peace, patience... the whole list. I also want there to be a legacy of people who've come across my path and been positively influenced to follow Jesus as well. A mistaken lie hidden in my life is that it is more evidence of my closeness to Jesus when other people want to follow Jesus too after interacting with me. Here's the kicker: the truth is that I'm not responsible for the growth or lack thereof in the lives of people in my sphere of influence. That's between you and God. My identity is not found in the success of my students; my identity is found in Christ, and he loves me right where I am regardless of what I offer to the world and the success I have in ministry. I still pursue the growth and closeness with God that leads to fruitful ministry, but the measure of my success is in my relationship with God not the dazzling numbers of students who call me influential in their lives.
I was also reminded of the pruning process this week which has layers of meaning in the fruit metaphor. Are bad things being pruned out of my life to help me bear more fruit? Or maybe I am being pruned out of someone else's life to make space for them to bear fruit?
Now we get to the biggest lie uncovered this week: my false belief that I'm a burden. Six years ago, I was indirectly told - but very clearly given the message - that if I planned to stay on the mission field, I had better not become a burden to the missionary community because of my disability. This message was delivered by people who didn't know me; they didn't know that I'd already spent nearly a decade fighting the lie that the world was better off without me. They unknowingly added a layer of complexity to my struggle to embrace my identity in Christ as a human being with value and worth not based on what I do but on who I am. I am currently someone with physical limitations, but that does not make me a burden. I know this, and I can say this, but I struggle regularly to feel this.
Earlier this week, a former student called me up for a brief chat, and we covered some highs and lows of the interim between our last conversation. "I think the Lord is working to uncover some deep lie in your life," she said, "but I could be wrong." She wasn't. We talked again this morning, and I told her how I'd spent a lot of time in prayer yesterday and realized there were lots of connected strings to this lie of me being a burden in kids' lives as well as the lives of peers and this community. I started our conversation saying, "I'm not a burden," and she immediately, emphatically said, "Of course you're not a burden!" In reality, no one actually thinks of me, the human person, as a burden. Yes, there are students who feel my advice that brings conviction as a burden, but that doesn't make me, the human person, a burden.
I am a human person, and my conversation this morning was with another human person. We spent a lot of time processing how we are both broken people and interact with other broken people. We talked about how important it is to still see ourselves as fully human and valuable in God's eyes. We talked about how we want reconciliation and growth in the lives of the other human people we care about too. It reminded me about one of the most important takeaways I had from my high school counselor. She taught me that sometimes people may hurt me, but it's never 100% their fault or 100% my fault. It could be 99% their fault, but my responsibility is to identify and grow from the 1% that was my mistake.
There's several places in my life that I can see my flaws, and whatever the percentage of my fault there is in relationships that are damaged, I have full responsibility to learn and mature and adjust course from my shortcomings in order to prevent further hurt in the future. Actually, there's always room for me to grow in every relationship - even when there's not current conflict. Another patch here of this week's quilt is a story from two years ago when a quiet sophomore came to my house with her dorm sisters. Sitting on my couch with a cup of tea, she asked me what I'd ever learned from my students. I loved her insightful question, and I had material ready to go from that year's two TAs. Julia's tireless campaign to help people see their beauty and worth taught me valuable lessons about intentional kindness towards others. Gerrit's constant eagerness to have political conversations in the name of Jesus taught me to be more loving and articulate about how I integrate my faith into all my conversations. In the present day, the student who first asked me the question has taught me a lot through this year about honesty, persistence, Taylor Swift, and compassion. She's given me such a gift in coming to me not only with her boy problems and anxiety about not knowing when she'll see her parents in Italy again but also laughing with me about hilarious games of charades and blessing me with special tea from her parent's country of service. She comes to me with the whole of who she is, and she interacts with me, the human person, as someone she respects but knows has shortcomings and will always need to grow.
I, the human person, have been blessed to be a blessing in her life. I'm moving forward with the blessing of being in a book club with her and a few of her peers over the next two years where we will read different novels and talk about how they help us to love Jesus better. She's agreed to do this because she wants to grow closer to Jesus alongside me. I love that. We get to bless each other in our mutual pursuit of Jesus.
Another connected event this week was a strange email from a current student about my wine preferences. It was an attempt at subtlety, but it backfired hilariously. I refused to give alcohol suggestions to a current student, but he showed up at my house with a potato and three cans of stapel chips - a snack I've regularly stolen from him - saying the gift was from a potato. The full confession followed as he explained an alumni in America had reached out to him and asked him to buy me a gift and a potato. The potato was linked to a meme the alumni had sent me several weeks ago; the gift was linked to the fact this insightful kid had sensed in a brief texting conversation with me that I was in a low place, and he wanted to cheer me up. This kid is gifted off the charts in discernment, encouragement, and generosity. He's an absolute blessing to me, and I've had the privilege of being a blessing on occasion in his life as well. He, the human person, is full of shortcomings and insecurities, but he journeys alongside me, the human person, who is also full of shortcomings and insecurities.
I don't have any action steps this week for you, the reader who is also a human person full of shortcomings and insecurities as I am just unpacking the lessons for myself as I grow closer to Jesus. I do want you to hear me say, though, that you, the human person, are not a burden. You are loved, you are broken, and you are capable of growing. I hope you'll find a way to be encouraged this week.