The first stirring in my soul that I can remember was at a Billy Graham crusade when I was seven. I asked my mom if I could go forward. That marked the beginning of my spiritual journey. My faith was nurtured by a supportive family and good youth leaders at church. By the time I entered adolescence I was still serious about my relationship with God. I maintained a fairly consistent daily quiet time, usually each afternoon when I got home from school.
It was during one of these quiet times that I heard a Voice – not audible but clear. It was a very strong impression that I should go ask Uncle Billy, the neighborhood drunk who lived across the street, if he was ready to meet God. The thought terrified me. I had always avoided Uncle Billy as he stumbled down the sidewalk, never once had a conversation with him. He lived alone in the other half of a duplex where my schoolmate Jimmy lived. He was Jimmy’s alcoholic uncle.
I couldn’t do it! I just couldn’t bring myself to approaching a virtual stranger and asking him such a personal question. I abandoned my devotional time and went out to play. But a heaviness in my chest would not leave. I returned to my bedroom to seek relief. The Voice was unrelenting. After agonizing moments – that seemed like hours – I finally bargained to walk across to Uncle Billy’s front porch and if he was sitting outside I would ask him. But as I walked past he was not on his porch – such a great relief! So once again I headed down the street to play.
But the heaviness would not leave. Reluctantly, I returned to my room once again. The Voice was clear as ever. “Go ask Uncle Billy if he is ready to meet God.” None of my objections or fears was sufficient to overcome its persistent power. It was a wrestling match that I would not win – not unless I wanted to willfully disobey and run away from God. But the story of Jonah reminded me that running from God was not a good alternative.
I finally gave in. I summoned all my courage, walked across to Uncle Billy’s duplex and knocked on his front door. He opened it and greeted me. He was sober. He invited me in and after exchanging a few awkward “how you doing” words, I blurted out the question that had been so forcefully impressed on my mind: “Are you ready to meet God?” He walked over to a bookcase and removed a dusty family bible – it was a German version. He opened it to a section that contained handwritten records and pointed to a page that bore his name – his baptismal certificate. And on the facing page, the record of his confirmation. I knew nothing of the significance of these documents nor of the religious traditions of his German heritage. And so I innocently asked once again: “But are you ready to meet God?” He thought about my question for a moment and then replied: “I think I’m OK.” The heaviness left my chest.
I had nearly forgotten about the encounter when later in the week I was talking with Jimmy. “Did you hear about Uncle Billy?” he asked me. “My dad found him dead in his bed this morning. He’d been dead about four days.” I cannot adequately describe the emotions that trembled in my viscera. I had doubtless been the last person Uncle Billy had talked with before departing this world. God obviously desired to get Uncle Billy’s attention at a crucial moment and decided to use a boy to do it.
It seems that one’s youth does not limit one’s participation in God’s Kingdom. I was fourteen. Jesus was even younger when he confounded the elders in the temple. “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young,” the apostle Paul told his young disciple Timothy, “but set an example for the believers…” (1Tim 4:12) God can and does use young people to accomplish His purposes, often mightily. To affirm the capacities of young believers, to ignite their imaginations as change agents in their world – this is a vitally important ministry of the church.
Adolescence is a decisive time in life. It is the time when most of us begin a conscious search for meaning and purpose – something to believe in. It is a moment when our sensitivities are unusually susceptible to spiritual influences – a moment to be taken very seriously by the influencers in our lives. When the church assumes responsibility for this sobering task, not only must role models be trustworthy but the message must be trustworthy as well. Nothing is more hurtful to the faith of young believers than to discover that they have been deceived by the ones in whom they have placed their trust.
That’s why the issue of integrity is so important when it comes to marketing mission trips and service projects. For young people to be told that the sandwiches and blankets they are handing out to the homeless on the street will keep these men from starving and freezing, only to later discover that these gifts are actually being misused to support destructive lifestyles – such a revelation can turn innocence into cynicism. Far better to be candid and discuss up front the risks as well as the potential benefits of service. To promote an image of helpless children in rags whose hopes are riding on suitcases (or containers) full of clothes that Americans have in abundance, only to find out that these gifts actually destroy local businesses, create unemployment, and intensify poverty – such misrepresentation can be deeply damaging to the development of young faith. Far better to explore together best practices and devise methods of exchange that have the potential for lasting benefit. Some realities may be tough to explain, and may lack the emotional appeal of “rescuing the perishing” but it is far easier to deal up front with truth than repair the damage done by deception.
There is no doubt that young people can be powerfully used by God. Youthful optimism, un-jaded by life’s failures and disappointments, is a gift to be nurtured. But it also needs the tempering of wisdom and maturity. And that comes from trustworthy guides seasoned in their own faith-walk, committed to high standards of honesty and integrity.