“I hope to have communion with the people, that is the most important thing.”
- John Paul II
- John Paul II
I am writing this while sitting at the desk in my apartment. Snow is falling outside, a fire is burning in my fireplace and I just received a text from my boss saying that the offices are closed tomorrow because of the winter weather. The sunburns and scratches have faded. My stomach is no longer revolting against the insane amount of rice and unrecognizable food I insist on filling it with. There are no more children and poor on the streets pulling at my heart whenever we drive by. The Philippines seem far away today. My only reminders of that beautiful and challenging country (besides the few souvenirs and pictures that are steadily growing on Facebook) are the lessons I learned.
I wrote in previous posts about how the Lord taught me that empowerment is better than handouts and the work we do is not as important as the time and presence we give. The third lesson the Lord taught me in the Philippines is one that I have been learning my whole life: Always be open to God changing your plans.
“For I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11) I am sure many of you have heard this verse before. It struck me back in high school, around the same time as when I started to apply to colleges. This verse has stayed with me ever since and has proven to be a constant reminder of how much the Lord has his hands on every step of my life.
Prior to my junior year of high school I was dead set on going to the Air Force Academy. If I couldn’t get in to the academy I was going to join the military anyway. However, I felt God call me to ministry when I went on a mission trip and so I set my eyes on a Catholic college where I could study theology and youth ministry. From there I was able to spend an amazing and life changing four months studying abroad in Austria and ended up graduating with my current job as a middle school youth minister in Denver, Colorado. None of that was part of my ‘plan.’
With all of this in mind I should have seen it coming. I should not have expected our mission trip to the Philippines to go 100% according to my plan. But I did. I expected us to get to the Philippines and have our days filled with work. Not necessarily to come in and build a whole school on our own but to work with the people. To bond with them over a shared burden and task. But this was not to be the case. As I mentioned in a previous post, the Filipino people were not concerned about what we could do for them. They wanted to share their lives with us.
This was a hard lesson for me to learn. As the leader of the trip I had certain expectations. I felt like everyone else had the same expectations and if they were not met they would not get as much out of the trip or would be disappointed. So even when we were working at the school, surrounded by hundreds of curious grade school children yearning for our attention and to get to know us I kept working. I kept shoveling because that was the ‘reason’ we were there. I kept thinking to myself, “What is it going to look like if we show up to a work cite and barely do any work?” I soon came to realize the answer: It would look like we actually care. It would look like we knew how to love. That we care more about the people around us than how good we can make ourselves feel by accomplishing some task.
I guess it was such a hard lesson for me to learn because it is human nature; it’s guy-nature. We want to feel accomplished. We want something physical that we can point to and know that we had an effect. This is harder to see in our relationships with people. It often takes longer to make an impact. But when we are living for Christ, the Lord of all hearts, walls tend to come down and love comes through even in the most brief and seemingly insignificant encounters.
There is a constant struggle in youth ministry not to get too attached to our plans. There are so many things we have no control over that we grip those things we do have control over all the more tightly. The fact of the matter is God is ultimately in control (I should probably put that on a banner to hang in my office.) We cannot make conversion happen; shoot, we cant even make kids show up every week! All we can do is set a good foundation in our planning: have a good schedule where different activities flow well throughout the night, write the talk in advance so there is enough time to pray with it and polish it up, etc.
Once the event begins (wether it be a youth night, social event, or retreat) we need to get out of the way and let God take over. Sometimes that means everything goes 100% according to plan. Sometimes it means only 5 students show up. Sometimes it means your talk goes in a completely different direction. As long as we are remaining faithful to the Holy Spirit and His direction it is always for the best. If the event goes just as you planned - Praise God! Take note and cherish it because those nights are few and far between. If only five students show up - Praise God! This gives you an opportunity to minister to those five in a much deeper way than you would if there were 20 other students running around demanding your attention. If the talk goes in a completely different direction - Praise God! You or whoever the speaker is was open enough to hear where God wanted the talk to go and it was probably the message the youth needed to hear. Sometimes our events just bomb. And that is okay too. Praise God! The good thing is you can learn from that experience and move on; correct mistakes and do better in the future.
The key is: HUMILITY. Youth ministers are usually always in the spotlight of events. They are the ones leading the different activities, getting the youth excited, and playing the games with them. It is easy to think that a ministry rests on our shoulders. But our shoulders are weak. We cannot even support ourselves without the help of God. We are simply instruments God uses to do his work. If God decides to do something other than what we have in mind it is a good idea for us to follow his lead.
The only way we can stay in tune with where the Lord is leading us is to PRAY. We need to spend just as much time (if not more) in prayer as we do planning. Go to daily Mass as often as possible. Speak to others in the ministry to gain different perspectives on what is going on. BE QUIET. Listen for the subtle urgings of the Spirit.
St. Joseph had plans too. None of which had to do with Mary becoming pregnant prior to their marriage. However, he was open enough to hear the Lord’s call and humble enough to accept this new plan. May we pray for his intercession that we may see where the Lord is leading us in our ministries, families, and lives; and have the courage to follow.