Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Perfect Strength And Why I Am A Youth Pastor

Jasper Speaks:

I had my first youth pastor position in my home church in St. Louis, Missouri. I served there officially only a few months when I went away to seminary in Kentucky because, after all, isn't that what you are supposed to do after you graduate college? When I left I was serving in an inner-city church that had about 10 kids in the youth group. The church ran around 40 in Sunday School so proportionally it was very good.

Grace, the church where I served, is a unique place. It has been around for about 50 years or so and its Pastor is an ex-sharecropper from Arkansas. He and his wife minister in the nearly all black inner city despite their white, sometimes prejudiced, upbringing. They are gifted in showing love and making people think they can make it through anything. Most of the time, they are right. I learned much in the time I served the church but even though I now know God called me to seminary for that specific time, I was not so sure once I got there.

You see, in early March, I got one of those phone calls every youth pastor fears. Landon, one of the core kids in Grace's group, had been killed. Landon was not a punk kid. He was the product of a single family home. He struggled some in school. He was never wealthy. He never knew what "comfortable finances" were. He was a good kid and lived real life.

Unfortunately, just weeks after his mother moved to a better neighborhood, Landon returned to where they used to live to see friends. As he came out of a corner market, a fifteen-year old saw his gold necklace. He ordered Landon to give it to him. Landon resisted. After a brief struggle, Landon was laying on the street corner, with a hole in his chest from a gunshot and no necklace around his neck. He lived real life and he died real life.

When I got the call I knew I had to leave. I started home first thing the following morning. I knew the church, the youth group, and especially Landon's mother needed me. I was overwhelmed with grief. I had no idea what I was going to say or do to try and help. I felt a great sense of loss. I felt like I had abandoned Landon and the other youth when they really need me. As I drove through Indiana, my eyes were full of tears. I would sob for awhile and then my throat would tighten and tears would silently fall. How would I find the strength to make it through the next week?

Then, through my little stereo sitting next to me (my car had no cassette player) I began to listen a little more closely to a tape of favorite music I had made several weeks before. I heard Steven Curtis Chapman singing a song I knew very well. As I tried to drive through my tears, I found myself singing along and claiming the song as a Word from God. I sang, "His strength is perfect, when our strength is gone, He'll carry us when we can't carry on. Raised in his power, the weak become strong. His strength is perfect. His strength is perfect." I continued to cry, yet now I had a resolve like I had not had before. I was going to make it through this battle. However, I was not going to do it in my own strength. Steven's song reminded me that there is a higher strength that works best when I can't do anything.

I went through that week with that thought in mind. My heart was very heavy. I had no words of comfort that could heal the broken hearts around me. I did have the privilege of speaking at Landon's funeral. As I looked out at the crowd before me, I saw Joyce, Landon's mom. There was heartbreak in her eyes but a smile on her face. We knew Landon knew Christ and in this knowledge we found hope. I could sense that her strength, like my own, was sapped. Still, God's strength was perfect. He carried us through a time when we just could not carry on.

I ended up coming home after that semester of seminary. I returned to Grace to minister to the youth that had come to mean so much to me. I stayed there two and a half more years before moving on to my next church. I learned a valuable lesson when Landon died. It is one I have taken with me the many times I have gotten the type of phone call every person fears. God's strength is perfect. His strength does not make the difficulties disappear but He does carry us through them.

If I try hard enough, I can still see Landon's funny grin. It is a little toothless from a mishap at school when he was just a kid. I miss that smile. If I had my way, Landon would be graduated from college right now. He would be about 27 years old. I would love to be able to envision him with a family and great job. However, as I find is often the case, God had another plan. You see there are two things I know without a doubt. Landon's Heavenly promotion helped to work out God's plan in many lives and God's perfect strength carried us through the hard times. It is still carrying us today. Just this past February Landon's Mother joined him in Heaven. This time I couldn't get back home to be with those who loved her. I drew on the lesson God taught me through Landon. God's strength is perfect when our strength is gone. I praise God that He carries us when we can't carry on. Being one who has been raised in His power, I will tell you the weak do become strong. Oh yes, His strength is perfect. His strength is perfect.