The Thorn as Gift: A Youth Leader’s Unexpected Offering

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A couple of years ago, we had one of the Chattanooga Fellows join us for our high school girls’ Bible study. Enter Caroline: a warm, cheerful, blond 23-year old with both an intensity and a generous laugh. She had just embarked on this 9-month post-college Fellows program where she’d take seminary courses, live with a family in the church, work at a paid-internship in the city, and explore various questions about faith, vocation, civics, and community. Serving in the youth ministry was a part of this, which meant I had the blessing of getting to be her mentor; she became a dear friend during this time.

What I didn’t know in first meeting Caroline was that she’d offer a great deal more than she could imagine to our high school girls – but perhaps not in the way she was initially thinking.

Caroline was born with Cystic Fibrosis, a genetic disease that makes breathing difficult and requires regular treatments. Several times a day, she uses a nebulizer and straps on a percussive vest, which looks a little like a blue life jacket and fills with vibrating air to help break up the mucus that inhibits her breathing. She is limited in how much cardiovascular activity she can do because of her restricted lung capacity, and she has endured difficulties many of us will never know in light of this reality. This includes the loss of her dear younger brother, Jackson, who passed away due to his own complications with CF.

When the time came for our annual summer youth conference trip, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted for Caroline to be my co-pilot for our high school ladies; she’d invested in them throughout the year, and her heart for Jesus was stellar. Tack on her fabulous sense of humor, and you had the coveted Youth Leader Triad of Greatness.

Her understandably big question was, “Will this work with me needing to do my treatments multiple times a day?” And she wondered how the girls would react. Would her devices get in the way? Would the sound be inconvenient in the dorm that we shared?

Well, there were adjustments we had to make in order to ensure Caroline’s specific needs were met, and we had one scary moment when her machine decided to quit (which is a life-threatening situation: she absolutely has to have these treatments in order to breathe), but we youth ministers are nothing if not flexible. So we figured it out together, and I performed manual treatments for her.

I cannot overstress what an incredible blessing it was for her to offer her whole self, treatments and all, to our girls.

Caroline was so exceptionally brave to undertake a week that could hold unknowns (such as the machine break-down), and she was so beautifully generous to allow our students a glimpse of what life looks like as a Jesus-follower with chronic illness. She offered her vulnerability to our community for the sake of the kingdom, and it was a privilege to see the Lord use it to draw our students into deeper relationship with one another.

As a society, we can be quick to dismiss or minimize our own suffering in the face of someone’s perceived greater suffering. However, one of the most important things Caroline reminded the girls was that their suffering was not less important or valuable; it was just different. And we are made, as the body of Christ, to bear our sufferings together. Jesus meets us in our suffering.

Caroline’s willingness to reveal some of the inflexible realities, fears, and inconveniences of living with a chronic disease while following Jesus set the tone for honest conversation about living under Christ’s rule in a broken world. Her generous offering of her experience opened the door for the girls to talk about what was hard in their lives, which included everything from disappointments with crushes to some deeply impacting trauma. It also evoked gratitude for things they’d never considered (such as being able to wake up and immediately go to the kitchen to eat breakfast).

I loved that we were invited (in the tiniest way) to bear Caroline’s treatments together as a community, as the sound of her percussive machine overtook our dorm space. It was a tangible invitation to the girls to practice grace, patience, and hospitality in the name of Jesus with one of our leaders, which is such a huge part of what we should be doing as the body of the Living God. And it was an opportunity to invite them to push through their anxiety with Jesus to draw near to another human who had a different day-to-day experience than they did.

Caroline’s humility was an enormous gift to our girls, as too was her willingness to offer her disease, her thorn, for the sake of the kingdom. What she feared would be inconvenient resulted in a truly beautiful picture of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:9: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

Caroline was a living display of the power of Christ that rests upon us when we are at our weakest and most vulnerable. Her presence on our trip was a daily reminder of the sufficiency and sweetness of God’s grace.

Not all of us have dear Carolines in our lives who are willing and able to offer their lives and experiences in a youth ministry context. But I’d invite you to pray for ways to incorporate those with more evident thorns into your ministries. Their lives often reveal the power and presence of Jesus in wonderfully countercultural ways. Do you have an elderly friend whose arthritis impacts their daily life? Do you know someone who has faced cancer and would be willing to share their story about walking with Jesus through it?

We live in a culture that is quick to encourage us to line dark clouds with silver, and to “just think positively,” but we know inherently that we need more. And our students have the same sense. Allowing them to come face-to-face with an experience where silver linings fail, yet the goodness of Jesus prevails, is an unsurpassable gift. Some of them know deep down that positive thinking cannot save them, yet they are afraid that their questions, doubts, and personal thorns indicate they aren’t “good Christians.” Or maybe they haven’t been able to acknowledge faith questions, stemming from deep pain in their lives, because they haven’t seen others around them acknowledging their own pain.

Even though our thorns can feel isolating, they can become incredibly powerful places of redemption, through Christ, as we offer them for the sake of the kingdom. We all experience the brokenness of this world. And we all need the hope of a gentle Savior who draws near. We all hope and wait – to one degree or another – for the healing and perfection of bodies that don’t work like they will one day.

May Jesus make us more into sensitive, aware lovers of Himself and others as we seek to learn from and honor those with physical or bodily “weakness” – weakness that often reveals the goodness of God in greater ways than we can theologize or explain.

 

 

 

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