“He would’ve been a huge star. But then he got all ‘religious’”, she said. I had just lost the regional round of a singing competition and was talking to a judge from the previous round that I had won. She was filling me in on the winner from last year. According to her he was destined for stardom until he threw it all away to ‘play church’ and waste his talent. She finished by reminding me, “See, I told you, you should’ve worn more sparkles.” She did tell me. And the girl who won was indeed wearing sparkly pants. “This was supposed to be it,” I thought as a tear rolled down my cheek. I was standing alone in a dressing room licking my wounds. I was supposed to win and move on to the national finals in Nashville Tennessee at the famed Ryman Auditorium where I would finally be “discovered”. And just like that it was over. It hurt. Worse, I was 21 and just starting to get to know God. This women’s words shook me to my core. Was ‘religion’ really worth it?
Fast forward 5 years …
I remember it with piercing clarity. They crawled into the backseat of my car with alligator tears rolling down their tender faces. “They’ve lived more in their short 12 years than most adults I’ve met”, I thought to myself as I put the car in drive. “I’m not gonna lie”, the girl in the passenger side back seat blurted out, “We just did meth.”
It’s bitter-sweet how painfully candid the kids are with us. The picture in my rear view mirror, the precious little girls in my backseat, is a jarring glimpse into the dark underworld of the addiction, loneliness, and hopelessness that exists in our tiny rural town.
We were picking the girls up for Tuesday night McDonalds. Three years ago our ministry partners Rachel and Ethan wanted to find a way to keep in better contact with the kids we minister to in the juvenile detention center when they got out. So they started telling them that every Tuesday night at 5:30 they would be waiting for them at McDonalds to buy them dinner. For the first 6 months or so they showed up every single week to exactly zero kids taking them up on their offer. I guess you could say it was their romantic Tuesday night date at Mickey D’s. It has been a year and a half since we’ve joined, 3 years into the McDonald’s journey, and there are about 25-30 kids showing up every single week. It is the most beautifully dysfunctional family dinner I’ve ever seen. It gives us the opportunity to love on these kids unconditionally, no strings attached, and be a twinkle of consistency in their inconsistent lives.
Tuesday night usually begins around 4pm when our phones start blowing up with Facebook messages from our kids asking us to pick them up, especially this time of year when the temperatures plummet. It was just a few months ago that we picked those two girls up on a downtown corner. They’ve already been fighting an addiction to meth for years and they’re not even teens yet. They both come from addicted parents and pretty much fend for themselves for food, clothes, and shelter.
As I peeled myself away from my rear view mirror that night, tears flooded my eyes. I put the car in drive, turned left onto Main Street towards McDonald’s and talked with the girls. Out of frustrating desperation I questioned out loud, “We’re trying to figure out how to help you girls. How can we help you? If we had a bedroom and brought you home would you even stay? Would you just run?” Through their tears they answered my question with stinging honesty, “We just want to be loved.” You see, neither of these girls have parents to give them boundaries or help them with homework or even make them dinner. They don’t have family movie nights or anyone to take them school shopping. They won’t be wearing footy pajamas while opening Christmas presents by a crackling fire place. They will be lucky to eat on Christmas.
The next thing the girls said shook me to my core and left an imprint within me that shifted the course of my life. It came from her mouth like thick paint poured out onto the canvas of my heart, “We have nowhere to sleep and no food to eat. If we do meth we don’t have to sleep and we don’t have to eat.” They’re doing the best they know how to do. Numb the pain. Numb the need. They’re in survival mode. So we took these girls to McDonalds and bought them a burger and some fries. Then we had to drive them back to the Chevron gas station where we picked them up and watch them in the rear view mirror. We drove away wondering if we’d be at their funeral this time next week.
Sometimes I find myself thinking, “God, are you there? Do you see this?” They say when you get saved, when you accept Jesus and ask him to come live inside of you, that His Holy Spirit fills you up and starts to change you from the inside-out. I was at a tent meeting one warm summer evening several years ago when the preacher kept peppering us with this question, “If you died today do you know, that you know, that you know that you’d go to Heaven?” I didn’t like that question because I didn’t know how to be sure. Then I heard a still, small voice whisper this question into my heart, “What is the difference between you and that person sitting next to you. That person who’s so sure that they will be with Me in Heaven?” Thankfully He didn’t wait for me to answer, “They believe Me! They believe My word when it says, ‘If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved’.” So I decided to trust God that night, to take Him at his word. And the strangest thing began to happen. He started to change me from the inside-out.
I used to drive around town thinking about my career, my brand, my image, my fan base, my social media, my followers, my music and how I could gain more exposure for myself. Now I drive around town and find myself breaking out in tears and begging God to show me how to help these kids.
I think of my poor 21-year-old self with a sweet pity; just a wounded girl grappling with a desperate need for significance, value and acceptance. I thought I’d find it in music. In money. In fame. In Alcohol. In relationships. As I started to get to know God I thought I’d find it in following the rules, being a ‘good girl’, doing all the right things.
So, is religion worth it? Nope! Empty rituals and traditions and checking the box on Sunday is definitely not worth it. It’s got to be more than that.
We all say we value freedom, especially in a country like the United States, but how we define that word will determine the very course of our lives. I used to think freedom meant doing whatever I wanted. Being able to drift from town to town, live where I wanted, do what I wanted when I wanted to. I loved not being “tied down.”
Then God moved us back to the Northwest (read more about that here) and week after week my husband and I find our roots going deeper and deeper. I used to be afraid of being tied down but now working with these kids seems to tether me and bring me back to center. Back to what matters. It doesn’t matter what kind of week I’ve had, how lazy or discouraged I’m feeling or how badly I just want to stay home, when I spend an hour dialoguing with kids in juvi about truth I learn more and more what real freedom looks like. Enslaved is the one who seeks to serve their own desires. Freedom is found in serving others. Living to serve saves us from things like selfishness, greed, and laziness. Ultimately, it saves me from myself. I’ve always known I was born to be somebody great, somebody important. But I’m only beginning to understand that greatness isn’t found in being served, the greatest people that have ever walked this earth are the ones who've served greatly.
So what do you do when kids keep showing up high to McDonald’s week after week? I’ll save that for the next post!
So just let me shadow you, just let me trace your lines
Matter of fact, just take my pen, here, you create my rhymes
'Cause if I do this by myself, I'm scared that I'll succeed
And no longer trust in You, 'cause I only trust in me
And see, that's how you end up headed to destruction
Paving a road to nowhere, pour your life out for nothin'
You pulled my card, I'm bluffin', You know what's in my hand
Me, I just roll and trust you, You cause the dice to land
I'm in control of nothing, follow You at any cost
Some call it sovereign will, all I know is you the boss
And man, I'm so at ease, I'm so content
I'll play the background, like it's an instrumen