The first seven years of my journey in serving the Lord were spent in the trenches of the battle known as youth ministry. From volunteer to paid intern, to part-time guy for part-time pay, to overtime guy for part-time pay, I was there teaching passionate Bible studies, poorly washing cars at fund-raisers, doing crazy things to my hair for the sake of the kidz, and rocking lock-ins left and right.
My first full-time, fully in charge, here are the reins to our teenagers youth ministry was at a small church in very rural Georgia. They had completed their Family Life Center (see also: Multipurpose Room, Fellowship Hall, or Gym) and constructed three classrooms on the second level which overlooked the gym floor. I was given a tour of the classrooms and told that two of them would be Sunday School rooms (naturally) and the third could be. . .The Youth Room.
This was in the mid-90s, DC Talk had just recently released Jesus Freak, so the wave of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) and praise bands in local churches was just forming, and the student ministry phenomenon and rite of passage known as The Cool Youth Room was also in cultural gestation. We were pumped to not have a Senior Citizen Sunday School hand-me-down room for our gathering place and to be on the cutting edge of "real" ministry. . .
I promoted the big Decorating of the Youth Room for a few weeks amongst our nine students as the first can't miss event of our journey together. I didn't really have a budget or anything close to resources near by (see above: very rural) so I began pillaging materials from The Closets of Cantatas and VBSs Past for our extreme makeover bash. I ended up with a patchwork art supply quilt of metallic silver pens, dehydrated markers smelling like chemical fruit, and primary colored poster paints. The big night came and the youth took my meager offerings and became the Rembrandts of teen faith expression as local Christian radio leaked out of my tiny boom box plugged into the corner.
Our walls looked like they had been in the middle of a war between fired Christian T-shirt designers and chimpanzee graffiti artists whose only knowledge of color was a Twister game they found in the jungle. Walking into the room, your sight was assaulted by a vision of sprawling bible verses, silhouettes of middle schoolers, dripping bumper sticker cliches, John Hancocks proudly blazed, and wallpaper designs as conceived by 8th graders and their gasping markers.
We loved it. We were proud.
We kept the supplies in the room for a few weeks, so the one or two students who hadn't been able to make it could add their Monet-like thoughts. And that was our mistake. . .because one morning in youth sunday school not too long later, someone pointed out a new phrase on the wall, barely noticeable, tiny letters written at an angle by an unsteady hand:
"I love you Gob."
We were incensed. An unregistered and rogue artist had violated our sanctuary. . .and with a sacrilege: a misspelling of God's name!!
Turns out the delinquent was the younger brother of one of the students, who on being questioned and cornered, said he just wanted to belong too. . .
Don't we all?
And don't we all at times scribble furtively in the dark our little prayers, feeling unworthy as we write them, a mix of uncertainty and ignorance, missing something. . .like God's name or a vital phrase crucial to making the prayers actually work?
Over the years, the story of the little vandal has repeatedly brought a reassuring smile to my face in times when I most needed it. . .
. . .when all I can really say is: I love you Gob.
And then, in those moments, I sense that Gob loves me back. . .
And Gob loves you too.