Towering Cedars, Eventually

BY 30 HOUR FAMINE TEAM

By Russ Polsgrove

My first paid youth ministry job was a church that had not had a full time youth worker for the eight years prior to my arrival. Although I was greeted warmly by most of the teenagers and families in our church, some people did not like me. At all.

There were a few teenagers who for some reason just didn’t want me to be there, and they were determined to do anything to get me to leave. My office was huge, but because of limited space in the building it doubled as a college-age Sunday School room. The computer sat on a desk in the corner opposite couches and a coffee table. It wasn’t really a bother considering I wasn’t in there during Sunday School.

Until one morning.

Being in a small town, there were multiple doors, no security system, and lots of keys dispersed among members and former members of the church. It was quite common to walk in at any hour of the day or night and see people milling about. One of the teenagers REALLY didn’t like me, and used the easy access to sneak into my office on a Saturday night. So when the teacher for the college class came in Sunday morning he saw my computer screen turned around to face the door. The screensaver was changed to a myriad of expletives to describe just what some people in the church thought of me. I was hurt, I was embarrassed, and I was angry.

At the time I was reading in the Psalms, and this one came to light.

My eyes have seen the downfall of my enemies;
my ears have heard the defeat of my wicked opponents.
But the godly will flourish like palm trees
and grow strong like the cedars of Lebanon.
(Psalm 92:11-12)

I’ll be honest about my thought process. That teenager was my enemy, my wicked opponent. I was the godly who was going to flourish like a tree. In my head it was that simple. At the time I took great comfort in the fact that I was the better person.

I worked for that church for five years. It was the most formative ministry experience I’ve ever had, but I never had an honest conversation with the teenager who did that. In fact, I’m not 100% sure who did it. I can narrow it down to three or four, but we eventually just moved on as the self-righteousness subsided in me.

A few years after I left (about 7 years after the expletive filled screensaver) I got a Facebook message from one of the teenagers who assuredly hated me at the time. He told me he was sorry for the way he treated me when I first moved to his town, and he was thankful I was part of his church and part of his formation. Two weeks after that I randomly bumped into another one of the students that had become a college student. He echoed almost the exact same sentiment.

I started thinking about Psalm 92 again, particularly the image of a tree. A tree isn’t strong and towering the second it’s planted. It has to grow. A lawnmower would kill a sapling, but would be destroyed if it ever went up against a towering cedar. In order for trees to get strong, they have to grow.

When we think of our ministries, we often think this is what we’re doing. This is what we talk about when we reference the long view. We “plant seeds” with the hope that one day our teenagers will grow into committed followers of Jesus. But when I think about growth, I think about myself. I was the sapling that needed to understand that teenagers will be teenagers. I was the sapling that needed to grow into a person of perspective. I was the sapling that needed to trust that the work I was doing was valuable and noble and a calling. I was wasting time by being angry and self-righteous towards some teenagers who were working through their own personal spiritual growth.

I don’t think I’m a towering cedar now, but I like to think I’d handle that situation much differently today. I wouldn’t be immune to the pain, but I wouldn’t pretend to be better than they are. They’re just growing.

And so am I.