Only If

Small Group BirthdayI wasn’t going to lead a small group this year.

I remember this Thursday night, as I climb the stairs of one of my senior small group girls’ homes, ready to partake in the birthday feast that the girls have prepared for me and my co-leader, Allison, whose birthday is one day before mine. Earlier this week, the hostess sent out an email to the small group:

“Alright guys so small groups this week at my house! For us girls, let’s meet at the school around 6 and for Kristi and Allison, come over to my house around 6:45ish.  It’s gonna be a great birthday celebration!! Can’t wait!”

So we arrive tonight, after long days and weeks filled with travel (for me) and play practice (for Drama Teacher Alli), to have dinner with five eighteen-year-old girls, themselves wading through the busyness of senior year with all of its essays, leadership and college plans.

I wasn’t going to do this, I think to myself, and I had good reasons. Far from being dissatisfied with my experience as a small group leader over the last four years at BFA, it was an amazing experience. With my roommate and co-leader, Emily, I was able to walk with six girls on a journey of faith and friendship, seeing them mature from giggly ninth graders–obsessed with Justin Bieber and the newest trends in America–to young adults of maturity and grace, looking ahead to see how they can live out their relationship with Christ in brand-new settings. It was an incredible four years, not always easy but always filled with reminders that Christ had brought these girls into our life for this season, as He gave us specific words to speak into each of their lives. I love these girls, and I miss them every day.

Sometime last winter, I remember saying to myself, I won’t sign up for another group next year. It would only be for a year, anyway. Never one for definitive statements, I countered a few minutes later in my self-negotiation. The only way I would do it would be if it were a senior group. Whose leaders were leaving. And only if someone asked me specifically. I’m not telling anyone about this. I didn’t even think of it as a prayer, at the time. Just a resolution.

It was the knowledge that my six girls would be gone that made me worry that I wasn’t sure I had “space” for a new group in my heart. To an extent, I fret about this every fall, feeling that I can’t possibly love this new class as much as the ones who are now a grade older. I feared it would be worse with a small group. If I’d spent four years investing in these six girls, how much would I have left to give to another group, especially one I’d be with for only a year?

To which God said: Ha. Plenty.

In late spring, Allison emailed me. Her request read like the formula of my non-prayer from a few months earlier. I have this group of seniors. And I’ll be here in the fall, but not in the spring. Could you help? She listed the girls, students that I was currently teaching in my junior English class, and my heart melted. Of course it would happen like this. God knew.

And that’s what I’m thinking about as we sit around with bowls of pasta and cake, talking about their trip to Italy last week. They tell about bonding on the beach outside their hotel, about seeing these sights that they’d been waiting all their lives to see. They talk about the future, how tangled and complex it looks from their vantage points, and I understand. Not just what they’re going through–future complexity that looks much like what we’re wading through these days–but how deeply beautiful and intricate are God’s plans. For these hours and days I’m spending in this valley, and all the lives He’s woven up with mine. For these months and years He’s given to me, and the steps He’s still waiting to reveal.


Now I Know in Part

Students and staff gather for a session for High School Retreat.

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.”

I Corinthians 13:12

From the back of the gym, I look over a sea of heads to the stage, where our speaker for High School Retreat 2012 is beginning his final session. It’s not often that I look over anyone’s head. At a cool 5’3″, my time in crowds has made me an expert in shoulders and elbows, all of them at face level. This morning, though, my rank of teacher and small group leader allows me a seat on the benches in the back. It’s a strange concession to adulthood–as if perching rigid on a low, backless wooden bench is more comfortable than slouching on the floor–but today I’m happy to accept because of this head-ocean view that it allows.

Before breakfast this morning I sat outside, reading Psalms and looking at the complacent blue mountains while my wet hair froze. You’ve become a spiral place, Switzerland, drawing me back and back with your magnetic majesty, this place of retreat where I’ve come at intervals to think and pray, and always to learn again what it means to share life in the close community in which I’m blessed to live. Last year, I began to feel at home around now, on this retreat, as I realized that I was beginning to know students and staff in more than just a surface fashion.

Now I’m listening to our speaker, Steven Ackley, speak on calling, urging our students to pursue the gifts with which God has blessed them, pursuing their passions in service of His kingdom. I pick out individual heads in the sea, some bowed and others glancing from side to side, remembering their gifts as I see each one. There are basketball and soccer players, painters and poets and party planners. Some will be missionaries, other entrepreneurs. As I look at them I pray for each, that all of our students, so unique, will take and give delight in being exactly who God made them to be.

It strikes me also that our students, so different from one another and in many ways from their more traditional peers in North America, share in common a desire to be known and loved. The weekend has been an important time of connection with students, especially the five tenth-grade girls that Emily and I have been leading in a small group for the last two years. There have been times of laughter and confession, as we grow in relationship and learn to challenge one another in love. At the end of the weekend, I feel that I know them better than I ever have, and that in the knowing there is love. How deeply we desire it, as humans, this feeling of being known by one another.

I’m humbled to remember that my knowledge of the students this room, so full of love and hope, is still imperfect, fragile and pale in comparison to the great love and intimate knowledge we all enjoy from Christ. How thankful I am to return each morning to this wellspring of love, content to rest in His deep knowledge of these kids I am blessed to serve.

Emily and I are attacked by members of our small group, enjoying sun and mountains in Lenk, Switzerland.