When I first began doing youth work, I had great visions of making a difference for Jesus- telling young people about him and seeing him make an impact- and I had all kinds of plans of how I hoped to see it happen.
Instead I ended up spending two evenings each week working in a boarding school, supervising a group of 15 boarders aged 9-14. The school had a Christian ethos and I was allowed to talk openly about faith but none of the young people I worked with were Christians, none of them were the slightest bit interested and, for the first few months there, it just seemed pointless. This was not what I felt called to do, and there were points when I really wanted to give up, but I was encouraged to keep going- keep showing up.
And as I did, gradually, things changed. Almost without noticing, I began to enjoy my times in the school, and even to look forward to them as I got to know the young people more and came to genuinely care for them.
Over time I entered into their world and gained their trust. I helped them with their homework, I comforted them when they were homesick, we played games and laughed and watched movies together, we spent evenings playing on the beach, I chatted with them when they were having problems with friends or teachers, I celebrated with them when they succeeded, and consoled them through some tough situations like the death of a fellow pupil, or one of the girls being expelled.
As time went on, opportunities arose naturally to talk with them about Jesus. They knew I was a Christian so they began asking questions about God and we had some great conversations. At the end of each term there was a chapel service, which was usually very formal and rather dull. After I had been there for a year, there were opportunities to have input to these- to introduce some modern music and to make it more fun. My group of boarders loved this and it led to one of the most memorable moments in the time I spent there as they loved the song “Blessed be your name” and one evening, five or six of them ended up dancing up and down the corridor singing it. Just to see young people who had been taught to equate Christianity with formality and tradition, begin to realise that it could be spontaneous and joyful was a huge step forward.
Over the two years I spent working in that school, the main thing I learned was the importance of just showing up. There could be no great strategy to tell the young people about Jesus, and there were few formal opportunities I could plan for- but there was so much value in getting to know them and building relationships with them, and the conversations we had about God flowed naturally out of that. I realised that those conversations would never have happened without the weeks of showing up, playing hide and seek, and trying to help them with homework I barely understood myself!
There was a lot of prayer. There were so many times when I faced situations where I felt completely out of my depth, but somehow God gave me the words and the wisdom I needed at just the right time, and I realised it was his work and he was in charge. My part was just to show up and try to cooperate with what he was doing.
As we head towards Christmas, I realise that Jesus is the supreme example of showing up. God didn’t just send a message to us from the distance- he actually showed up in person. He entered into our world- experienced the joy, the laughter, the sorrow and the pain- he became part of it. It means he understands what it is like to be human, to live in this world, and so we can pray to him, trusting him because the fact that he showed up and that he is always with us, demonstrates his love and gives his message greater credibility.
He is the Almighty God, the Alpha and Omega, the King of Kings, but at Christmas we also remember him as Emmanuel, God with us- the God who showed up.
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