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Bullying: It Never Stops

26 Jul

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Once upon a time—in the late 90’s—I was sitting in math class at my Christian high school.  We had some free time so I was working on homework when a student in the back of the room began harassing me.  “You’re a lesbian, you know that?” he taunted.

One of his smirking friends joined in pointing out that I must be a lesbian because I didn’t have a boyfriend.  At least they didn’t call me ugly or fat—that day.

Finally, unable to stand it anymore, fighting back tears I told them to stop, which just encouraged them to continue their torment.  My teacher was standing at the front of the classroom, no more than 15 feet from where I was being verbally abused.  I looked straight at him and asked, “Aren’t you going to do anything about this?”

I’ll never forget his response.  It’s one I’ve heard used by educators, parents, and adults everywhere when they talk about bullying.  Dismissively, he said, “If you ignore them, they’ll stop.”

If you ignore them, they won’t stop. 

I know because I tried that, too.  The bullies only jeered more loudly.  Other joined in or laughed, while a few girls sometimes giving me pitying glances.

Back in those days I didn’t cry nearly as much as I do now.  I would hold it in knowing that they could never see you cry.  You can never let them see that they got to you.  I knew I would come home and drag a razor across my wrist or thighs or stomach and somehow that would release my pent up rage.  No one called it “cutting” or “self-injury” back then, just para-suicidal behavior.

Sometimes during middle school and high school, I imagined I would stand up and give an impassioned speech, which would change everything, like I was staring in some sort of Hollywood blockbuster.  I would tell them how much it hurt to be called names, to be pushed into my locker, and to be left out.  They would finally understand, apologize, and we’d all become best friends like on “Saved By the Bell” episode where Zack dated the fat chick.

I couldn’t wait to grow up because I thought there wouldn’t be bullies anymore, or at least I wouldn’t have to go to school with them every day.  When I became an adult or at least went to college everything, I assured myself that everything would be OK.

When I went to college, everything was OK.  I met and befriended real lesbians on campus and wondered what those immature high school boys would say about that.  I excelled in my classes, like I usually did, and felt secure in my environment of friends who accepted me.  Finally, I was part of the “in” crowd or maybe just in a crowd.

They (whoever “they” are) say that bullying is just one of those things kids do and the victims will survive.  Students just need to toughen up, educators say, because kids will be kids.

I wish I could say it still didn’t hurt.  I wish I could say the kid who made fun of my voice every single say in sixth grade science class hasn’t affected why I sometimes feel awkward when my voice is amplified over a microphone.  So many of these lies still rattle around in my brain and the lies have become my truth.  It is something God and me are working on together. 

The truth of the matter is that words do hurt.  The far reach of social media has made bullying even worse.  I recently watched a documentary called The Bully Project and I cried through much of it.  I couldn’t even watch the entire thing.  Emotions I thought long dead resurged.

Finally, it occurred to me that no matter where you are, what age you are, or what you do, there will always be bullies.  Work bullies, neighborhood association bullies, church bullies (who do it in the name of God), road rage bullies, mommy group bullies—and you know what?  Ain’t nobody got time for that!

Frankly, I’m sick of bullies.  They’ve taken too much from me and I’ve let them.  I don’t have any deep answers on how to solve the bullying epidemic.  I don’t know how to make teens stop sending stupid text messages or posting ridiculous nonsense on Instagram or Snapchat.  All I know to do is to tell them over and over again the effects of bullying. I can’t change them, but I can change me.  I can stop giving their words meaning and move past the hurt they inflicted.

I refuse to be like my math teacher, who incorrectly told me they would stop.  They never stop.  Instead, I work with students as they deal with conflicts and teach them about who they are in Christ so the truth can overcome the lies, so the light of God can overcome the darkness

In this work, I have found redemption for my own middle and high school years eaten by the locusts.  There is healing in ministry—something that makes the scars bring forth His light. 

My junior year of high school was more than half a lifetime ago and I still remember the words of the students and my teacher.  I still feel the sting because I am human.  But I don’t let it consume me because I am redeemed.

Pokemon Go Into the World

14 Jul

Last night there were a lot of youth and young adults at my church.  The problem is that they weren’t inside the doors, but rather in the parking lot.  You see, our church is a Pokemon Go Gym and there was an epic battle being fought between the red and blue teams for control of this precious resource.

Have I lost you yet? (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, click here.)

Like millions of other people, I downloaded the alternate reality game because when it comes to pop culture, I like to be in the know.  What I initially didn’t realize about Pokemon Go is that it’s a precious tool when it comes to meeting others.  Take a walk around your neighborhood, and you’re bound to run into someone else looking for Pokemon (aka “pocket monsters”) to catch.  Eavesdrop on a conversation at a local fast food joint and you’ll find out where the biggest and best Pokemon are lurking.

I’ve heard so many complaints about how the game is silly, a waste of time, and childish.  I’ve read the stories about how it’s consuming people’s lives and seen funny videos and meme’s about those who take the game a little too seriously.  Pokemon Go can and may be all those things.  But like all technology—all things really—it’s what you do with it that matters.

As a youth leader, I’m always looking for ways to connect with my youth—whether it’s singing Adele and Taylor Swift songs,  watching superhero movies, playing MarioKart, and social media.  Any way I can dive into youth culture, I’m willing to give it a try (within reason.) If downloading a game that involves catching little creatures with things that resemble baseballs (pokeballs) is a way to bond with students, then I’m all for it.

My heart echoes what Paul talks about 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.  I want to become all things to youth—a mentor, cool adult friend (like an aunt), a karaoke singer, a movie watcher, and a Pokemon Go player.  Like Paul says, I want to be all these to different students because I desperately want them to know about the One who made me.  I want it to be way to sharing the Gospel and showing how God is alive in my life.

See, last night one of the girls in my small group and I roamed around the perimeter of our church catching Pokemon.  Then I was able to talk to another student—a boy who just finished 8th grade—about Pokemon Go.  He excitedly answered all my questions and honestly, now I’m a better player.  The students and I even talked about the potential for a meet up with their friends to go monster hunting together.  I suggested the same thing on my neighborhood Facebook page, which is usually filled with drama about what time we should put out the trash, complaints loud teenagers, and random gossip.  Finally, there was something that brought us together; we could go out and play Pokemon Go.

Tomorrow I plan to spend time with another student and hopefully catch a few pocket monsters during our time together.  Maybe we’ll even make new friends.  In a nation that’s become so divided by politics and race, isn’t it great that there is something that’s bringing us together, even if it is a little silly?

And tonight or tomorrow night, I’m going to head over to my church and sit with the young people littering its parking lot.  Since I’m Pokemon Go newbie, I need help from experienced players.  No one seems to mind a quirky blond woman in her 30’s asking about Pokeballs and hatching eggs.  So, I’ll sit with them on the concrete and as the Holy Spirit leads, perhaps invite them into the church.  One day maybe we won’t sit together on concrete, but rather inside the church worshipping God together.

Last night when I looked at the Pokemon players, less than 100 feet from the church doors, it filled me with hope and excitement.  Churches aren’t exactly filled with the under-30 crowd these days, but there they are in our parking lot.  We could easily dismiss this nonsensical game or we can use this opportunity to minister to the people that are very literally sitting at our doors.

I don’t know about you, but I am definitely joining the PokemonGo Out Into the World movement (#pokenmongointotheworld).  Yes, I meant that to be punny, but it fits in with Matthew 28:19 pretty well.

Wanna join me?  We gotta catch ‘em all!

The Wisdom of Youth

15 Mar

Not my students, but we can pretend they are!

On Facebook, I recently posted some off the cuff remarks on what I, as a youth leader, have the privilege to learn from the student with whom I work.  See, the thing is that I often think I will impart the wisdom of the ages on these young minds.  I will amaze them with all my Bible knowledge and life experience.  My middle school girls (the primary group with which I work) are so lucky to have me.

Really and truly, I am so fortunate that God allows me to work with them.  I often tell them I love having a front seat in seeing them grow into young women of God.

Because everyone in the world isn’t my Facebook friend, I thought I’d recap what I posted here and add a little meat to my top 10 list because it’s so easy to forget how much we get from the students who spend time with us.

Here are 10 ways my students pour laughter and encouragement into my life…

  1. They are always FIRST to like my Instagram photos…and they like each and every photo I post.  Sometimes my own mom doesn’t even like my Facebook photos. (To be fair, she’s technologically inept and doesn’t always see my photos.  In case you’re reading this, I love you, Mom!)
  2. Not only do they insist I *REALLY* am engaged to Captain America, they think I’m amazing enough to be engaged to someone LIKE Captain America. (Being engaged to Captain America started as a joke last May and since then has really taken off.  My students, in particular think it’s great and often introduce me to their friends as Captain America’s fiancé.)
  3. If the Captain America thing doesn’t work out, they have back up guys for me to date and it hasn’t occurred to them that these guys might not be interested in me. Seriously, they see the rare single guy at church and automatically start planning our wedding.  Sometimes I look at these guys, who are really good looking and think about how they’d never be interested in me.  These girls don’t see that—they see *ME* and think I deserve the very best, even when I don’t.  I love them so much for wanting that for me.
  4. They remind me that cynicism doesn’t have to be a reality; idealism can flourish. To them, almost every fun idea is a good idea, whether it’s running outside to check out the twin brothers who live next door (note to parents: we are discouraging this) or learning to crochet scarves or sledding down a snow mound during the Super Bowl party.  They are ready for anything.  I love when they’re told they can’t do something and they ask, “Why not?”  It hasn’t occurred to them that certain things just aren’t possible.  I am learning to ask myself the same question because why not?
  5. No matter WHAT the discussion happens to be, they can tell random stories that have nothing to do with the actual discussion. It’s a special skill.  It really is.  If you’ve ever talked to middle school girls, you know what I mean.
  6. They can’t remember to bring their Bibles to *BIBLE STUDY*….but they remember the words I say. As much as I think they aren’t listening to me because they’re staring blankly at the wall or laughing with a friend, they hear me.  They remember when I tell them they can have a piece of candy for memorizing a Bible verse, that I love meat, and even that they are so dearly loved by God.  Keep talking, fellow youth workers, they’re listening.
  7. Even if I think I’m the biggest loser in the world, they think I’m completely awesome.  I was one of those kids that never fit in when I was in middle school.  I could those are three of the roughest years of my life.  High school was only slightly better.  Yet these are the kids who know think I’m a role model.  How on earth does that happen?  I have no idea only to say it is by the grace of God.  Plus, I think listening and showing an interest in the students probably helps a little.
  8. They still think playing WiiU is cool…especially when they team up against me on MarioKart.  I consider it a fellowship and bonding activity.  It’s always fun to win a game against an adult, right?  Except I always crush them in MarioKart.  Sorry, girls, I have a lot more practice driving than you!  It’s fun to be able to “play,” which is something we adults neglect far too often.
  9. They raise their hands when they don’t interrupt each other.  It’s a respect thing and it’s absolutely adorable.  But yes, there are lots of random interruptions.
  10. Sometime they say the most astonishing things, I can’t believe they’re only teenagers.  Last summer when I was running a high school girls small group, we were looking at Psalm 139.  I asked the students, “If we are fearfully and wonderfully made, then why are some babies born with birth defects?”  There was a long pause and one of the girls said, “He makes us how it pleases Him.” I had to take in her thought…and often times, I still have to take in her thought to remind myself, I have been created to please my Creator.

I could probably write an entire book on learning from middle and high school students, but I’m sure many have been written.  Here are a few of my thoughts on some of my favorite people in the world. Thought it’s an often quoted verse for youth, I want to use it just the same. “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for all believers in speech, in conduct, in faith, and in purity.” 1 Timothy 4:12

I’m so fortunate God blessed me with teenagers who set such a high example for me.  My prayer is that I can be worthy of this calling.

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