It’s interesting as a parent of a 7th grade boy, to be navigating the Jr. High years from the other side of the table. More than once, during the past two years, I’ve thought, “Oh my word...what did I put my parents through?!?!” I remember, in particular, Jr. high was when I learned that sarcasm could be a primary form of speech and that I should definitely pursue a career as a stand-up comic -- I was certain that everything I said was absolutely hilarious!
Jr. High is an age where most of us are figuring out some key aspects of life, and like it or not, it’s the time when many of our values for living are set. Choices are made to do -- or not do -- certain things, to be around or to avoid particular people, and these choices set a pattern for our lives. I know a lot of people who’ve looked back at the decisions they’ve made in life, good or bad, who can trace the origins of those choices back to Jr. High. I think that’s one of the reasons why I’ve always loved youth ministry, and in particular, why I’ve always enjoyed the challenges of working with Jr. High students.
Bob Smith was my Jr. High youth pastor and he was used by God to influence me for good. Bob made it cool to be a Christian and taught us that living for God by making good life choices was not just wise, but fun. He taught us early on that if we would evaluate our lives by God’s standards we would end up living with fewer regrets while experiencing more joy. Bob was the reason I started aiming my life toward youth ministry.
One of the things about Bob was that you wanted to be around him. He had his own pressure washing business at the time and worked 60+ hours a week, yet he ran the youth group like it was his only job. He was high energy, he was funny, he wasn’t afraid to challenge the norms and most of all, he loved people. I invited friends to church, to youth camp and to activities all the time, because I knew they would have a great time and that Bob would love them unconditionally regardless of where they came from. In fact, I remember the time we drove up for a weekend youth camp and on the day of the event, I brought 12 mostly unsaved, mostly unchurched, friends with me. Even though Bob had a mild heart attack (we were a church with 2, 15-passenger vans for transportation, and I had given Bob no warning about my friends!) he welcomed them and made them all feel welcomed for our weekend away.
I also remember that Bob used to get in “trouble” with some of our church leadership because he valued people so much more than rules. We had a few leaders who tended to focus on the rules, especially the unwritten rules, of church life instead of the relationships of people in the church or community. One particular event that’s etched in my mind involved my friend Joe.
Joe had come to youth group a time or two before (I think) but also attended his own church. I really wanted him to start making our youth group his new home so on a Wednesday night during the summer, I invited him to come out again and be with Bob. Joe and I talked during the day and He assured me he was coming. So you can imagine that I was a little irked that as youth group came and went, Joe never showed up. I railed on him over the phone the next day.
Well, it turns out Joe did show up. He rode his bike the 3 or 4 miles from his house to the church, and when he walked in the front doors of our building he had been greeted by one of our older “saints”. The older gentleman asked Joe, “Can I help you find something?” Joe told him he was here for youth group. The older gentleman looked Joe over and was a little bothered that he was wearing shorts in church (keep in mind, it was summer, and Joe had just ridden his bike to be at church), and knowing nothing about Joe, his family or his spiritual condition he said, “Well, not dressed like that you’re not. Why don’t you go home and change, and then come back in pants...” (Of course, there were 25 of us hanging out with Bob in the back of the church, and 1/2 of us were in shorts.) Joe went home, but he never came back to our church.
That event has never left me, and in fact, has often guided decisions that I made in youth ministry. I know I made some mistakes, I know I hurt feelings, said the wrong thing and broke rules I shouldn’t have over nearly 17 years of being a full-time youth pastor, but I always tried to err on the side of love. I didn’t want anyone to ever turn away from God because I emphasize religion about God, instead of having a relationship with God. (Thankfully my friend Joe found another youth group that apparently hadn’t read the Bible verse, “Thou shalt not wear thine shorts on a hot summer day whilst riding thing bicycle” and he went on to love and serve God with his life.) But I’ve met far too many people that were treated so poorly by those enforcing the rules, that they never turned back to see the love of God that’s supposed to be behind those rules.
Don’t get me wrong, rules are important. Anyone who thinks they can please God without following the commands and truths of His Word, is sadly mistaken. But God demands that we follow His Word in love. Just listen to these few verses that describe the priority of love:
“ABOVE ALL, love each other deeply...” (1 Peter 4:7)
“And over all these virtues, put on love...” (Colossians 3:14)
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
There are many others but the point is clear: love for God is to guide our actions and our lives, not a love for rules. In fact, when Jesus was asked about the most important rule in the Bible He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength” and then He threw in a freebie: “and the second most important command is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.” You see, when we love God with all of our being, and when we love others the way we want to be loved, we will obey God’s Word. John 15 teach us that if we love God, we will do what He has commanded us -- obedience follows love, not the other way around!
And if we truly love someone, we will show it by following the commands of God’s Word. If you love someone, will you steal from them? If you love someone, would you sleep with their spouse in a scandalous affair? If you love someone, would you invite them to do evil things with you? If you truly loved someone, would you intentionally want to bring any harm to them? Of course not! And guess what, those are all things in the Bible that we are commanded to avoid! So love leads us to obedience!
I was blessed to see love lived out in my family and in my Jr. High youth group. I know my life has been shaped by how Bob Smith lived out God’s love in my life and in our youth group. But most of all, I have grown, through many mistakes and missteps, to teach and preach the love of God more than ever. I know that the Overboard Life demands a commitment, not to the rules of God, but to the love of God; to loving God, and to loving others the way God loves us. When we get our love for God and others in the right place, the rules become a whole lot easier to follow.
What about you? Are you loving God with all of your heart, mind, body and soul? Are you loving others the way you want to be loved? Put on God’s love first, and then I think you’ll see His commands in a whole new light.
11 down, 29 to go!
Go ahead and take the plunge, life is always better on the water!