One of the things I hate about doing youth ministry is that it reminds me of being thirteen.
I see the interactions between girls, between boys, between girls and boys, I see the one girl who gets left out, the boy who the girls laugh at because his hair is messy, the girls who are already using mascara, and the one girl who is not, and I remember: I was not one of the cool kids.
I looked in the mirror some days and despaired that I would ever be pretty. I sometimes thought that other kids were laughing at me behind my back. I wanted boys to like me, but didn't know what to say to them. I was shy. I didn't always know what the latest style was. I was a little socially awkward, not good at sports. I did not like to go to youth group much because, despite the fact that I went to the same school as most of the others, I only had one friend there. I thought of youth group as being a place for the "cool kids" too, not for me. When I was confirmed I started helping with Sunday School and singing in the Adult Choir.
I have heard some youth group leaders say that actually the way to grow a youth group is to appeal to the cool kids, the popular kids. You can't have a good youth group by appealing to young people who are like I was, shy and a little awkward and insecure. I get that, but it still makes me sad.
Looking back, I realize that part of my problem was that I was so focused on myself and my insecurities, all that I thought that was wrong with me. I supposed that is part of being thirteen, whether you are a "cool kid" or not. But the other thing I realize, when I look out at all those thirteen and fourteen and fifteen year olds now, is that it isn't just the lonely, shy ones who are full of doubts and insecurities, who wonder if anyone will love them, who look in the mirror and despair. Most of the "cool kids" don't think they are so cool. Not really. Some of them are worried that they are going to be discovered. They're all struggling. It's just that some of the struggles are so painfully obvious, and some of them are hidden behind the surface of a pretty face or a group of friends, or the ability to throw a ball.
We're all struggling, whether we're thirteen or thirty or fifty four or eighty. Some of us are able to hide it better than others. But on Ash Wednesday, some of us go public, come out of hiding, and show the world that we are dust. You thought we were cool kids? No. We're dust. We're losers. We're insecure, we can be self-absorbed, we're awkward. We confess to you, O Lord.
And yet we are also beloved. God has marked us with the cross, and said, "You are mine. You are beautiful. There is a place for you. Even if you are thirteen."
One of the things I hate about youth ministry is that it reminds me of being thirteen. But, that's one of the things I love about it, too.