“You know, Jennifer, you’re a really neat girl.”
A neat girl. That was all I needed to hear. Michael was driving his 1991 Honda Accord in the caravan from the church back to the Baylor Baptist Student Union. Our team had just led a group of middle and high school kids in some all-around craziness after their high school football game. A guy named Phil sat next to Michael in the passenger seat, while I was in the back. All I could see was the back of his head and his big, brown eyes in the rearview mirror.
“I MET A GUY!” I told my roommates.
And so it began.
Twenty years and three kids later, here we are in suburbia – driving to soccer practice and dance classes in our minivan, heating up leftovers before the teacher conferences, dropping off our teenage daughter in front of the youth building at church.
Michael and I spent a good chunk of our college years in student ministry. We led small groups of students during weekend retreats, pouring into them, loving them, being goofy with them. There were skits. Lots of skits. And music. Games like Man-Gun-Bear. In between moments of craziness, we talked and we studied together. We unwrapped pieces of God’s character and who He says we are, how to know Him, how to be who He wants us to be. We prayed. All the things we had done ourselves when we were the students looking to college kids and young adults to show us the way.
As students and later as leaders, sometimes we stayed in homes with a group of kids for an entire weekend – homes where kindly old people gave us food and a place to sleep and who looked away when we snuck out to decorate the youth minister’s house with Charmin. They were such nice old people.
Last weekend we were those kindly old people. And our daughter was in a student group led by a young adult.
We used to be students. We used to be young. Now we are old.
I only had a few brief moments of weird. Overall, it was a very cool full-circle experience, especially since our sole purpose for designing and building our house has always been events just like this one. Even before we married, we talked about our home being our ministry – providing a safe, warm, welcoming place for our kids, for their friends, for our friends, for strangers. We prayed to be The Cool House where all the kids want to hang out. Where those kids who may not know much love in their homes would know it in ours.
And, thank you Jesus, we have a house design where the master bedroom is on one side of the house, and the playroom and other bedrooms are upstairs on the other side of the house. So the Cranky Old People can host a group of 7th grade girls for the weekend and still get some sleep.
It’s a win-win.
Michael took the boys to visit his mom, and I stayed behind to loosely supervise our rowdy crowd. “Giggly” and “squealy” are more accurate terms – encouraged by insane amounts of sugar consumption. There was no Charmin decorating, but I did look away when they kidnapped my Costco-sized jar of cinnamon for The Cinnamon Challenge. I’m happy to report only one girl threw up, and she did it in the grass. I did draw the line at The Gallon Challenge because drinking a gallon of anything is a very bad idea. Also I only have organic milk in my refrigerator, too expensive to end up in my grass. Thankfully dinner was ready when some fearless girl suggested this game, so I quickly handed each of them a fajita. Crisis averted.
You could not pay me enough money to be a thirteen year old girl again. I paid my dues and survived that season by the acne-prone skin of my crooked teeth. Thankyouverymuch. But I remember enough to still feel heart-wrenching compassion when I observe their drama. We had “good” girls. And we had “not-so-good” girls. One group wanted to dig deep. The other group wanted to text their boyfriends. One lifted their hands and sang passionately during worship. The other went to the bathroom, walked around, changed seats, found their boyfriends.
One group – and I’m guessing here – grew up going to VBS and Sunday school, have families intact, know that they are loved. And the other group – still guessing – desperately seeks love and security.
These two diverse groups of girls do not like each other. Yet they are thrown together in the same house for three days. Drama. Division. Lots of glares and rolling eyes and heavy sighs.
But give each of them a spoonful of cinnamon and a barf bag, and they astoundingly get along pretty well. At least for a little while. They proved to themselves that all teenage girls have an underlying layer of silliness, despite their differences. That there is commonality hidden under the discord. That we all seek approval, security, acceptance. That a mouthful of cinnamon is impossible to swallow, no matter what kind of home you live in.
Their unity was short-lived. After dinner, they reverted to division and eye-rolling, to cliques and sighs. But – at least for Meghan – I think they came away from the weekend with the teensiest bit of compassion and understanding, the smallest amount of perspective. As Michael likes to say, that is not insignificant.
The years I spent as a student during weekends such as this undoubtedly shaped me. Small seeds planted by passionate college students and kindly old people grew into great stalks of life and breath and faith. Like Paul said, some planted, some watered, but God made it grow. I can only pray that my tiny offering of walls and beds, of a ping-pong table and a jar of cinnamon, of fajitas and Skittles, will plant a seed deep in the hearts of these treasured thirteen year old girls. That they walked out my front door, journeying back to their own homes, with the knowledge that they are important, loved, significant. That God already resides in their future, yet still present with them now – coaxing them, leading them, holding their hands and guiding them to the breathtaking purpose He has for their lives.
The students became the leaders, the leaders became the kindly old people. The kindly old people once again became the students and learned that we all crave a sense of belonging, that walls and barriers are not so high. That God still moves, still breathes, still works to lead us to a greater purpose.
And, most importantly, we learned that nothing makes a spoonful of cinnamon go down.