A Tale of Two Woes

girls worship at camp 2014

This was my small group of freshmen girls I lead at camp last summer.

I began writing this in October and am only just now posting it. I hope it sparks something in you like it did in me.

I work and serve at Central Christian Church in Arizona, specifically in the Student Ministry. I’d like to point out that my story is just that: my story, my opinions, my flare. What you read next in no way reflects my awesome church or all the awesome people who work and attend here. So now that is out of the way I can tell you my tale of woe…

I love students. I love mentoring the young minds and encouraging and challenging them towards a greater potential. I love that, occasionally, they also do the same for me– a symbiotic relationship, if you will. But in the very same moment it can be the most taxing, the most frustrating, and the most disheartening thing I have ever invested myself in. There are tons of quotes from respected people saying that the best things in life are often the most difficult things in life as well– which is so true, but saying that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.

I recently have had two separate freshmen ladies that I know and love approach me and tell me woeful stories about life taking turns and directions that they were not prepared for. Both involved them losing some part of their innocence and feeling lost and confused about where to go from there. They were clearly in a place of deep pain as the related their tales to me with tears rolling down their cheeks. I do not posses the gift of mercy by any means, but watching these two girls suffer caused me to ache inside. While part of their pain was brought on by themselves, which they were keenly aware of, the fact that this was something they had to deal with at all broke my heart.

So what do we do, as caring leaders/adults in the lives of these teens, when we have a fourteen year old telling us something horrible, wrapped in pain, and earnestly staring you down to receive comforting words of guidance and assurances that everything will be okay? What do we do when the spotlight hits us and they expect us to speak but we have no words to say?

In the case of these two lovelies, I prayed hard and fast that the Lord would remove my brain and replace it with his knowledge and wisdom so that hopefully whatever would come out of my mouth would be his words, not mine, because I was ill prepared to help these girls.

While I know my responses were not perfect, I also know that I conveyed to them both that I cared for them and I was there for them whenever they needed someone. I have made my own mistakes and have been haunted by my own sins and the key to being able to empathize with them was to remember that I had been there– in some ways I was still was (this blog is not called the Messy Phoenix for no reason). Was it my place to judge them? No, absolutely not. Was it my place to to chastise them and tell them what they did was wrong? No, absolutely not. Their own spirit had convicted them and they felt awful enough without me adding fuel to that fire.

They both hated themselves in different ways– I was not going to be someone else they thought they may have disappointed. Was I disappointed? Yes, I won’t lie, but does that mean I did not love them and want them to rebound and to heal? No!

The book of James in the New Testament of the Bible is one of my absolute favorites. While not technically considered a Book of Wisdom, like Proverbs or Job, I believe it imparts so much to us; I think this book is the slap in the face most Christians need in their life:

11 Don’t speak evil against each other, dear brothers and sisters.[d] If you criticize and judge each other, then you are criticizing and judging God’s law. But your job is to obey the law, not to judge whether it applies to you. 12 God alone, who gave the law, is the Judge. He alone has the power to save or to destroy. So what right do you have to judge your neighbor?

James 4:11-12 NLT (BibleGateway.com)

These verses make me think of Jesus’ teaching in the Book of Luke, chapter 6, when he speaks to a large number of followers telling them not to be a hypocrite; if there is some sin in their own life it is not their place to be pointing out the sin of another. We are, ALL OF US, in this thing together. No matter our stage of life, no matter our experiences, we all sin and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23).

The beauty part is, in our brokenness, we have support:

Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer[a] is overcome by some sin, you who are godly[b] should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important.

Galatians 6:1-3 NLT (BibleGateway.com)

Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, tells us we are to share each other’s burdens! Yeah! And if you are believing yourself to be too good for that, check it again because Paul tells you to get over yourself (clearly I am paraphrasing here). Jesus even tells a parable in Luke 18 that condemns the Pharisee for believing himself to be better than the tax collector.

Friends, Listen!

Just like I had to do with these two teenage girls, we need to put ourselves aside; we need to find it within ourselves to lift each other up instead of tearing each other down. Does this mean we condone bad things done? No, absolutely not; that thinking does not reflect Jesus’ heart either. What we do is understand that, heck, we’ve been there too. I may have not experienced the same fall from grace that these girls did, and it may be I have, but that does not mean I cannot look at them and say, “You are beautiful, you are loved, and not just by God but also by me, and I’m telling you we can fight through this together. Let’s get back on track TOGETHER.”

I’m not sure this is the direction I initially meant for this post to go but I do know God spoke it through me for a reason and I hope you have been challenged or given hope by it today.

I’d love to hear from you! When have you been confronted with a similar situation and how did you handle it?


Six Flags with a Side of Insomnia

04 May 2010, Sumatra, Indonesia --- Children board a crowded Indonesian school bus --- Image by © Greg Dale/National Geographic Creative/Corbis

04 May 2010, Sumatra, Indonesia — Children board a crowded Indonesian school bus — Image by © Greg Dale/National Geographic Creative/Corbis

The above picture, clearly, is not one of the trip but I looked at it and thought, “this is exactly how I feel when we take these trips.” I only WISH we could strap some of the kids to the top– how fantastic would that be? I originally started this post back in October of 2014 right after the last trip and didn’t finish. I began writing to tell a particular story about my bus riding experience on the way home from this event.

Which I will now continue…

The last couple of years in October I have participated in a trip that most normal, reasonable people would never/should never go on — a theme park turnaround trip. I am an adult, I cannot handle these kinds of adventures anymore, and yet I’ve done it– three times to be exact; 2 a.m. on a charter bus with 50+ students and other out-of-their-minds adults followed by five other buses of the same. Our pilgrimage takes us to Six Flags Magic Mountain in Southern Cali every year, where we arrive at about 10 a.m., stay until 11:30 p.m., and make the trip back home arriving at the church at 7:30 a.m. What little sleep you get, is pock-marked with screaming teens who are filled with excitement, broken down buses (oh yes), pinched nerves, and periodic bus driver stops at which point kids will want to rush off the bus to run into whatever convenience store is nearby to purchase RIDICULOUS souvenirs. Save your money for the park crazy kid!!!

X2 and Tatsu

Easily the best two rides and Six Flags Magic Mountain– or at least they are my favs!

Before I continue on to rant about the horrid experience, please be aware that I wouldn’t go on this trip if some part of me didn’t absolutely love it. I love getting to hangout with teens in a relaxed, no pressure environment where we are just having fun and making memories. I love roller coasters! They are the best things ever! I love bonding with the other leaders on the trip over crazy things whatever group of teens we were tasked with engaging with did while waiting in line or, better yet, during Fright Fest when all the scary monsters came out. It is a blast of a trip! Here is a photo with the two 7th grade girls I got the privilege of tagging along with all day. They were awesome, which made the trip even more awesome.

Tatsu: Six Flags Magic Mountain

Getting ready to ride Tatsu, front row, at Six Flags Magic Mountain.

So believe me when I say, my trip home destroyed almost all of those awesome positive memories that were made in the 12 hours prior. My husband is also a leader with the students and has attended the last two trips with me– last year, he was my seat buddy. This past trip, however, we were required to split as we had an odd number of girls and boys– we can’t have any “purpling” happening (PINK + BLUE = PURPLE… I hope that makes sense…). Anyway I got to sit next to this girl from a campus of our church that I don’t normally attend so I didn’t know her, which was fine because I have no problem sitting next to students I don’t know; just means I get the opportunity to meet someone new.

Using my keen perception skills, I deduced that my seat buddy was “odd”. The kind of odd where she wants so badly to be friends with the other girls having giggly conversations around us but is too socially awkward for them to really give her much attention. I felt bad for my seat buddy and did my best to talk to her and find out more about her and make sure the girls around us (most of whom I did actually know) included her in conversation; selfishly, I also did this so I could sleep because boy did my seat buddy want to talk. So the ride to Six Flags was pleasant enough; I got a chance to sleep, she was happily conversing with the other girls, all was well.

The day in the park was had, we sluggishly made our way back to the buses (which is an ordeal in itself! Do you know how far the buses have to park away from the actual entrance to the park?!), and collapsed in our seats. This is where the “fun” began. I lead a life (small) group of freshmen girls and several of them were on the bus with me. One had ended up being a “third wheel” and was sitting with someone she didn’t know and wanted to sit with me on the way home. I told her she was more than welcome to if my current seat buddy would trade her…

This girl WOULD NOT BUDGE. Which is fine, it was her seat and I wasn’t going to force her to move, but she really had no evident reason for staying in her seat. All the girls she chatted with on the way there were already getting ready to sleep the whole way home and she still would have had an aisle seat, if that was her desire. So I had to tell my life group girl she would have to stay where she was. Was I peeved? I would be lying if I said no. Did I respect the fact my seat buddy didn’t want to move? Sure I did. Now, what happens next is fuzzy because, A) I was tired and B) it was 7 months ago that it happened.

The next 8 hours were torture for me and, I can only assume, for her as well. At some point, not sure when because I was dozing in and out of consciousness, my seat buddy began to whimper.

Why is she doing that? (I feel a little bad for this next thought–) Maybe if I continue to pretend to sleep she’ll stop.

Shortly, the whimpering was accompanied by rocking– forward and back, forward and back– additionally the whimpering grew in volume.

Why?! Why, why, why, WHY?!

The whimpering grew even louder and the rocking more violent.

I cannot be the only one hearing this right now. Please just go to sleep… I beg of you!

My seat buddy busts out her phone and makes a call, I assume it is to a parent but I can only hear one side of the conversation:

“…I can’t, everyone is asleep… I can’t, it hurts…” and the conversation continues like that for a few minutes until she hangs up. She gets quiet for a little while and I begin to be relieved.

Okay maybe talking to mom/dad helped and she will be fine now… ugh my leg hurts…

Then it started again.

Oh no…

It grows in intensity until she is violently rocking back and forth again.

No no no… ugh, I can’t take this anymore, I have to move my leg…

I moved and she took that as a sign that I now wanted to talk:

Seat Buddy: “I have to go to the bathroom.”

Me: “Okay, then go.” (we were in the front of the bus, the bathroom was in the back)

Seat Buddy: “But I have this rash on the inside of my leg and every time I move it hurts really bad.”

Then why are you rocking?! 

Me: “Then hold it and stop moving around so much. ”

Seat Buddy: “But I really have to go.”

Me: “Then go.”

Seat Buddy: “But it hurts to move and I am afraid of tripping over peoples feet.”

Me: “Then sit still and hold it. Would you like me to try to contact the nurse to come look at you at our next stop? I can’t do anything for you right now.”

Seat Buddy: “Okay.”

Me: “Alright I’m texting her now”

I text our nurse, who is on another bus, who tries to ask me questions about her condition but my seat buddy has now tuned me out and won’t respond. I took this to mean maybe she was okay and I could try to sleep again.


“Hun, you have two choices. 1) Toughen up, deal with the pain, and walk to the back of the bus and use the bathroom. 2) Sit here, quietly, and hold it until we get home (which was like 4 more hours away). Personally, I think going to the bathroom is your best option in the long run.”

FINALLY she gets up and goes to the bathroom.

Praise Jesus!

When she comes back we enter into a pseudo calm where she is still whimpering and rocking but not nearly as bad anymore. Then the buses all stop to give our drivers a quick break and the nurse boards our bus.

Nurse: “Hey Valerie, how is she doing?”

Me: “I’m not sure, she finally went to the bathroom but she was still in pain a moment ago.”

Nurse: “What is her name?”

Oh crap…

Me: “Umm… I know she told me before the trip started, but that was 24 hours ago and I don’t remember.”

Nurse: “That’s okay.” *Turns attention to Seat Buddy* “Hey sweetie, how are you doing? Where does it hurt?”

Seat Buddy: *Unresponsive*

Oooooo! After all she has put me through she had better wake up and answer the nurse’s questions.

Nurse: “Sweetie?” *Shaking Seat Buddy gently*

Oh she is definitely playing dead. Oh I could kill her, I really could…

Nurse: *Talking to me* “Okay, well without being able to see what is happening I don’t know what to do. Here is something to ease her pain, if and when she wakes back up.”

Me: “Okay thanks.”

Nurse leaves, buses begin moving again… and so does my seat buddy.

I straight up did not feel bad for ignoring her this time. I had done all I could to help her, I had not slept a wink past the first hour on the road home and I was just fed up. At this moment, I could not have hated anyone more than I hated her.

When the trip was done, and most of the kids had been picked up and several of the leaders gone home, one of our pastors, who’d been on my bus, asked me what in the world was going on.

Ah ha! I KNEW I could not be the only person experiencing this girls crazy antics. But eeevvveryone kept quiet and let me deal with it alone. Even my husband, who was in the row in front of me with his seat buddy, offered no help (granted, he had his own fun little issues to deal with).

Reflecting back on this story I realize I learned a few things:

1 – My compassion levels are not where they should be; ESPECIALLY when I am tired. Is this bad? Yes, probably. I was their to be a leader for these students and when one was “in trouble” I tried to shirk my responsibility– unsuccessfully.

2 – The only way I will ever share a bus seat with a student again is if I get to pick the student I am riding with. I.e. one of my life group girls.

3 – No matter how hard I, or others try, none of us can be exactly like Jesus to all people all the time…especially when sleep deprived. I need Jesus in my life just as much as the students do and I am not above getting into selfish internal hissy fits when I don’t get my way– and I know I am not the only adult who feels this way.

Point is… I’d still go on this trip again.

Because I am nuts and possibly a glutton for punishment.

Even though the trip home was awful, the relational time was worth it and I know it was important to those two girls in the photo above. I do it for them, I do it for Jesus, and I do very little of it for myself.

Welcome to my mess, and praise the Lord I can be reborn from it.

Tell me… do you have a crazy story from a trip with teens? I’d love to hear it!