Yesterday afternoon, I considered that my opening line for a talk to some at-risk students at Project LIFT might just be throwing up on the lovely blue carpet. It was a deep blue, like the far-out part of the ocean that people always warn you to avoid unless you’re an expert swimmer or have a boat. I’ve always been one to get nervous before speaking – and it’s probably more akin to anxious excitement than nervous dread – but I was especially amped up yesterday because it was a new experience for me. Sure, I’ve spoken to hundreds of youth over the past 15 years, but it was almost always within a church context, almost always on a passage of Scripture. This was different. This was me speaking to a theme, trying to inspire kids with tough backgrounds and even tougher realities to overcome the hardships before them and aspire for something more.
Sure, we were meeting in a church, but I was doing something new. And I knew I would either nail it or fail miserably.
I decided that nailing it was the preferable option. So I pushed my anxiety aside, kept my Whatchamacallit candy bar in my stomach where it belonged, and I started telling a simple story about a boy, his kinship with a pencil, and the journey of discovery they made together. (If you’re interested, here’s the PDF: Project LIFT – The Boy)
If you’ve ever spoken to teenagers before, you know they can be a tough sell. They’re smart, they’re savvy, and if they think for a second that you’re flim-flamming them, they’ll shut you out and move on. The students I spoke to yesterday were no exception. But as I went along with the story, trying my best to weave in humor and add in improvisational moments based on their responses to me, the most amazing thing happened.
They stayed with me.
Now, here’s where years of youth work comes in handy. To the average person, a teenager who is “staying with me” might seem a lot like a distracted, disinterested person. They rarely keep eye contact, they tend to shift in their seats, and every so often they’ll look up or down or around the room to see if maybe a magic fairy has flown in to grant wishes. It can take some getting used to. In fact, you really have to simultaneously speak to them and look for the cues that they’re with you: a smile, a subtle nod of agreement, leaning forward in their chair at a crucial point, tapping their neighbor on the shoulder and gesturing for them to pay closer attention. All of those signs were present yesterday afternoon, even as my talk soared past the fifteen minute mark.
I wrapped it up after 25 minutes, and the best thing in the world happened.
They wanted to ask me questions. Which means they had listened and heard something that piqued their interest. I even got asked two of my favorite questions: Have you ever thought about being a teacher? and Have you ever thought about doing stand up comedy?
(In case you’re wondering: yes to the first and no to the second.)
Afterwards, the folks who invited me to speak (without ever hearing me, might I add – brave folks) told me that it was the first time they could remember that the kids had ever sat through a presentation without having to be redirected.
“That never happens,” one worker said. “They actually listened to you.”
Yesterday, I took step beyond the familiar boundaries I’ve always known, and the ground beneath my feet was just as firm. I’ve always been told – and believed – that I was a good preacher; yesterday was the first time I’ve been told I was a good speaker. There may not seem to be much difference, but for me, there is. And since you might be asking yourself, “Self, what is the difference?”, I’ll tell you:
A preacher comes with a built in audience. A speaker has to earn one. God has always been gracious to me because He’s always provided me with a platform to speak from and people to speak to. I’ve never taken it for granted, but it’s always been built in for me because of my involvement with a church. Yesterday He showed me that he could open doors beyond a church (never mind that I was physically inside a church) and that I could earn the right to be heard. He showed me that He could do more with me than I’d imagined.
The best part of the day, however, the part that just made me fresh-from-the-oven-chocolate-chip cookie gooey inside, was when I got into the care with Rachel to leave. She silently grabbed my hand and said, “Good job.” I kissed her hand and said thanks. But then she added this, and I knew things were going to be okay:
“I loved hearing you speak like that. You really seemed to be in your element. It was awesome, and the kids really enjoyed it.”
One journey ending, another beginning. Into the deep blue we go.