Right out of college, I worked in Thailand on human trafficking cases. It was an intense work environment and I wanted so badly to process all that was going on, but I had no idea where to start. I very quickly learned that when I told people what I did, when I answered the question of how my day went with any honesty, that I made people uncomfortable. So I settled into a pattern of telling half-truths. I smoothed over the rough parts, silencing my own impulse to spew out stories so frequently, that within a few months, I felt no desire to share at all. I talked less and less and less about what was going on, to friends, family, or even in journaling and prayer. The grim reality of the situation was so socially uncouth to talk about that I settled for easy half-truth answers over and over again.
“I work in human rights.” “I work with kids.” “It was a hectic day, always is.” “It’s hard but I’m learning a lot!” “I’m fine, good. How are you?”
Being a pastoral presence, particularly to children and teenagers, is complicated because it requires a certain level of performance, of self-removal, of image curation. You want to be yourself with teenagers, but clearly not unreservedly yourself; not all of your stories, or opinions, or fears, or failures, are appropriate to share, or useful to those you serve. Being “fine, good” is sometimes necessary, so you can ask the “how are you” that they came to you for.
In early May, my father, who had gotten a terminal lung cancer diagnosis two years before but was essentially asymptomatic, started bleeding into his brain. A rush of sudden overnight trips to help mom take care of him, arguing with doctors, living out of a backpack, and sending parent emails and submitting finals from the floor of a hospital in Tallahassee, meant May became sort of a blur. And I didn’t really feel like I could talk about it.
My father had wished to keep the fact that he was sick private and so I didn’t talk about it much. Many of his close friends, co-workers, his own brother, didn’t even know he was sick until a couple weeks before he died. I hadn’t talked about it much, and all of a sudden, I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t even know where to begin.
On June 9th, I decided to tell the teenagers, because I realized I may not be able to be on some of the trips this summer because my father had been put into hospice. I told them the truth, that my dad was dying, and that I might not be on the middle school mission trip that started the next day, because I had to fly to Nashville. It was hard, and awkward.
My father passed away that afternoon. I left the very competent youth staff to run the middle school trip as I helped my mom handle logistics, and prepare for the funeral. Two days after the funeral, I drove to Memphis and lead the next trip greeted my kids with excited waves and big grins, (“thank you for the flowers, yeah I’m fine, good, I appreciate it”) and then after that trip, I went on the next one, and then there was VBS, and then Camp Barnabas and… you get it.
As we have this by-week at home, before youth Sunday, and Parent Meeting, and Kick-off, and school year nonsense, it feels like the correct moment to break the silence, to give a better answer than, “fine, good, how are you.” It was a brutal summer. I lead trips, and got kids from place to place, and lead games, and had those one-on-one conversations with kids that make the job worthwhile, but it wasn’t without cost. I said plenty of words on microphones these past few months, about what time the bus was leaving, and what the rules for the trip were, and who was up first for dinner, but about those things that were occupying most of my brain, about life, and death, and family, and grief, and love? About those things, inertia had once again lulled me into silence.
It can be desperately hard to talk about those things that most deserve our words. Silence about what really matters, route “I’m fine, how are you” answers, are just so much easier than truth. This fall, our theme for youth ministries is “Welcome Home,” we’ll be talking about framily (friend-family), about community, and about growing in Christ together, and all of that requires not just being brave enough to ask harder, more honest questions of those around us, but being brave enough to answer them ourselves. It requires breaking the silence, overcoming the inertia of telling the same lie over and over again that makes everyone comfortable and serves no one.
I will try to be honest, I will try to leave space for an honest answer with the faith that true, meaningful, life-giving Christian community only exists on the other side of “fine, good.” I just ask that you meet me half-way, that you both allow the space for the youth pastor to not be her normal put-together, fiery, energetic self for even a second, and that you trust that we have space for your honesty too.
You have no idea how often Matt and I get phone calls that go something like “Hey, how are you? Yeah, we’re good – just quick update, I’m going to miss this meeting, my mom was in a horrible car accident.” So often, we feel like honesty is a burden to others, and inappropriate breach of social protocol, when the fact is, it’s the thing that holds us all together.
All of us want to be able to be vulnerable with each other, to be able to support one another and know that when we need support ourselves, others will have our backs. So I’ll start: my dad died, which made this a really hard summer. I’m handling it ok, but grief is complicated. I’m excited to go back, but it’s hard to have things return to normal.
How are you?
Director of Youth Ministries