The Hardest Four Years

<God Alert:>This piece is not my usual rant about some aspect of corporate learning. It still is about learning, but is tagged for the Learning About Living side of the Living in Learning blog. Some might ask, “Why combine something like this in a corporate learning blog?” I in turn would ask, “How can God not be a part of every facet of our lives, both personal and corporate?” I promise I am not going to preach, though a southern accent would be befitting of a bible thumping preacher. I don’t thump, but I do read His Word, and when He is heavy on my heart to do something, I have little choice but to be obedient. I fail at that often, but this morning I am compelled to write…with no idea where it is going to wind up. I find that exciting and it is like a mystery waiting to be revealed. </God Alert>

My wife and I are committee members of our local Young Life ministry somewhere between the corn and soybean of southeastern Indiana. This ministry strives to reach teens where they are and shares the gospel of Jesus Christ. If that sounds like a religious ambush, or hijacking of teens from their church home, or luring them away from the influence of their parents…all of which Young Life has been accused of doing…I can assure you that it is anything but. I was once a naysayer. I once nodded my head in agreement when others called it a cult. Honestly, I am beyond embarrassed when I look back at how small my mind was when considering those things as truth.

This piece is about the four years our teens are in high school – that place where they confront that age gap between being totally reliant upon parents for everything – to that moment the light goes on and they discover that the world is their oyster. That’s when the genie is loosed from the bottle. They are told they are old enough to make their own decisions; however, no one tells them that chances are better than good that they are not quite ready to make many of them with critical wisdom yet to be earned. The newly found freedom of having transportation available through their own vehicle or that of a friend enables them to leave the home nest…with the genie ready to grant every wish.

If you have kids of this age you know the kind of fears and worries when the midnight hour arrives and yours has not come home safely. You know that twinge in your gut when you hear a siren off in the distance, and you try not to think the unthinkable. It always seems to happen to somebody else; kind of like lightning. What are the odds of being zapped yourself?

My wife and I had our phone ring late on a Saturday night. I was slamming microwave popcorn watching mindless TV, and my wife was fertilizing her crops in Farmville. She answered and did something I had never heard from her – she shrieked. That was scary enough by itself, but what she shrieked was the beginning of a change in our lives. “God no! Please don’t take my son!”

I nearly choked on the combination of popcorn in my throat and the adrenaline that flooded the rest of my body. I needed the rush to get myself off the couch because the laptop was about six inches from the ceiling and on its way to the floor. I had enough time to dive under the plunging hardware and make an amazing catch, and in a continuous motion I wrenched the keys away from my wife who was bolting toward the door, and I said, “I’ll drive. You pray!”

We had an hour’s drive to Cincinnati where he was being emergency airlifted along with his girlfriend. The drive only took us 35 minutes. Up until that point, I had never heard my wife pray aloud. That was not part of our lives at that point. She prayed over and over, “God, please have the best hands on my son…God, please have the best eyes on my son!” And she just kept repeating that as I hit the high spots on I-74 on our way to the Trauma Center at University Hospital. I prayed too, but mine were silent and were for God to distract the State Police…and get us to the hospital in time…and in one piece. He did; the first of many miracles that night. No cars blocked our path on the interstate. He also turned every traffic light to green as we exited onto Central Parkway and made our way three miles up and down the hills of Martin Luther King Boulevard to the hospital. I worked at Children’s Hospital for about four years and followed that same route past University Hospital to get to work. Never…ever…did I get more than two or three green lights in a row. That truly was a miracle given that there were no less than 20 traffic lights…and…the other miracle…MLK should have been full of Saturday evening traffic. All green. No traffic of consequence.

I will spare you the details of the hospital stay, but have to share the significant answers to prayers. First, was an angel dressed in a flight suit, boots, helmet, the whole package, a female captain in the Air Force and a recent veteran of service in Iraq. She was the inflight surgeon. She was the first owner of the best hands. She felt his abdomen with those hands and detected internal bleeding. Her touch told her that without emergency surgery he was going to die. It was a race to save his life. Radioing ahead with this discovery to alert a Trauma Team…because of her touch…was another miracle.

At the hospital, we saw our son lying on a table in one of the Trauma Bays. He was alert and did not seem to be in a great deal of pain. I will never forget the image of his seat beat that not only had saved his life to that point, but had been burned into his skin. An outline stretched across his lower abdomen and diagonally from his left hip, across his chest, to his right shoulder. The collision had been head-on…their tiny Pontiac Grand Am collided with a huge SUV. Neither kid should have been alive. I am so glad I did not see the photo of the vehicle until well after the accident. I could tell only that it was a Pontiac because of the emblem that had been pushed back to the base of the windshield.

We met with the surgeon who confirmed the internal bleeding. Once more, best hands and best eyes were upon our son. That was yet another miracle because it was now after 1AM on a Sunday morning, and the doctor who was about to search along 20 some odd feet of intestines to find the perforations that were the source of bleeding turned out to be the Chief of Surgery at the entire hospital. That night was his night to be on rotation serving in the Trauma Center. Best hands and best eyes once again. Yet another prayer answered. After ten very long days, discovering and prayerfully reading Psalm 93 a gazillion times, our son was discharged; his girlfriend a few days earlier.

Okay, so there is the happy ending. Both kids recovered. I chose to share that story so I could tell you this story. Our son was in his senior year of high school. His life had been changed. Looking death in the face does that to a person. Being a starting defensive back on the varsity soccer team and playing in the end of year State tournament or any hopes of soccer scholarships were now history. We were afraid for him, because soccer was a big part of what defined him.

Every kid needs something to define him or her. Every kid. Personal definition is not something anyone can give to you. You have to figure it out for yourself. Some of us do. Some of us do not. The same outcome options hold true for our kids. Some do. Some do not. The challenge is not that they must define themselves, but when the defining process begins. I am convinced that the first real period of formulating who you are and where you fit in the world begins in earnest during the four years of high school. It was that way for me, and if you look back and be honest with yourself, many of you will come to that same conclusion.

Personally, I blew it. I defined myself by others, my peers, and my vices. I defined myself by their expectations of what it took to be a part of their circle. That happened a long time ago, but it begs the question today, “What part of that process is any different for our own kids now?”

They have the burning need for this definition of self – even more than they need us as parents and all the sage advice we have the burning desire to share. What parent wishes for their kids to learn the hard way by making the same stupid mistakes, and making knucklehead decisions, and flirting with death-defying choices that we did when we were teens? Never mind that the risk attached to today’s choices blow ours away by comparison. We do not know their world, and trying to impose ours upon them is a mistake that only widens the gap between parents and teens. Funny how that holds true for generation after generation. Our problem is unique in some ways and yet identical to every generation before ours. It is not that we continue to screw up, it is a fact of growing up that no parent can control through these hardest four years. Knowing we cannot intervene to protect them every moment is not a reason to give up, it is a reason to do something different…and I will get to that…and so will Young Life.

Our kids are out there driving around in their Grand AMs every Saturday night. They are tempted in so many ways to make choices that serve the promise of being an accepted member in the community of their peers – not just on Saturdays but every day and every night. They do not make these decisions around the supper table…if the family gathered at the supper table even happens. They do not make them at church, for those that still might go. They are tempted in the hallways and the parking lots at school every day. The reality is simple and plainly there in front of us – they are going to make mistakes just like we did and for the very same reasons. The scariest part of that reality, at least to me, is the nature of our world today and the severity of risk associated with the mistakes from which they have to choose.

When I went to high school, smoking a cigarette in the bathroom was the primary capital offense. Sure there were pot smokers too, but they were the long hairs out in the parking lot. But there were no heroin or crystalline methamphetamine epidemics, or readily available sources of cocaine. Porn was limited to the Playboy magazine in your friend’s dad’s dresser under his underwear. STDs that can kill had not yet been spawned. The stakes are higher now, and gratification is virtually instant for whatever vice turns your crank. The resulting falls from the highs that so many of our teens seek is much farther, and the landing is so much more violent, and they are dying from their decisions – decisions driven by the need to be accepted or to escape the fact that they are not accepted.

Teens are living in the hardest four years of their lives. They are in a treacherous growth spurt. Technology and readily available transportation accelerate their abilities far ahead of the wisdom necessary to ensure the right choices are made every time. Face it; they will discover they can fly, and one way or another, they get that taste of freedom to make their own choices. “I can fly, so let me go.” That message is what we as parents hear in the form of silent rebellion, resistance to listening, and eyes rolling when loving, well-intended warnings are doled out. Add a car or a friend with a car into the mix, and they are in their Grand AM. They are quick to learn that they can take-off and fly. What has not yet been learned is that take-offs are optional and landings are mandatory – lessons they have yet to learn. Some do. Some die at the scene of a crash.

So, where I am going with this whole thing is simply put this way – We have four short years to introduce them to a flight plan that offers a positive eternal outcome. We, as members of the Young Life ministry, realize that reaching a teenager has a unique set of challenges, and having that knowledge is precisely why this ministry is so different and so successful. Young Life leaders are dedicated to a program that goes to where the teens are. They do not hold events because the kids they seek do not participate in events no matter how well-intended, well-funded, or well-sponsored. Instead they go to the kids. They hang out. They are trained to hang out. They are trained how to be young adults that can build trust with a kid who has no motivation to trust anyone but an accepting peer. But they do it anyway.

They are in the cafeterias where high schools are progressive enough to allow them to be on campus at certain times during the day. They are in the hallways around lunch. They are hanging out in the parking lots. They sit with the kids at sporting events. They linger at McDonald’s after the games. And eventually, somebody asks why. “Why do you care about me? You’re an adult, and this is a weird thing for an adult to do. Why are you weird like this?” They are weird like that because of the mission to which they are called – to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It IS weird in their eyes because of the lens they look through. Parents cannot do this. Pastors cannot do this. Teachers cannot do this. Young adults with a kind of courage that I frankly admit I do not have…CAN do this. And they do. Every day. They do it because it is a calling as well as a full-time job, and still others in training do it as a volunteer with every bit as much dedication. Callings do that to people. As a committee member, I wipe my brow and breathe out in relief knowing that that job is not up to me. I’m too old. Hanging out in the student section would be way too weird and likely end up in my arrest just because it would be so weird. But somebody needs to be there…in the lunchroom, halls, parking lots, ball games, and fast food joints because that is where the hardest four years are being lived out. That’s where the enemy hangs out selling who knows what tools of evil. Those places are the battle grounds where our kids are being defined whether we like it or not. In good conscience, I cannot concede that battle to the enemy.

If we think that these four years are scary, think about what comes next. Whether moving out to live and work in the world upon graduation or heading off to college, temptation throws an accelerant on the emotional fires and raging hormones that make up our kids. Parents are soon to be completely cut out of the picture. Whatever life definition that was made in the previous four years will either be tested to limits none of us can comprehend or will be further and more deeply defined. Either way, it is going to be hard. The rest of this life in this world is going to be hard, but then, that is life. Without the right support system and value instilled early, it can be even tougher.

Since there is no escape from life being hard, the only real defense any of our kids can count on is having something that is going to be constantly there, and they can find that through a solid relationship with Jesus Christ. That’s what Young Life does for those willing to accept the invitation to have their lives defined by a relationship that is waiting to happen. I can remember a time in my life that I frowned upon anyone who came at me with Jesus this or Jesus that. I had no time for it. Witness? That was somebody unlucky enough to be at the scene of a crime. Had no time for witnesses either. Remember, I shared that I blew my four years when I had the chance to define who I was, and it took another forty or so to finally figure it out.

If being involved with a courageous gang of young adults willing to go where the enemy lives and to throw a loving lifeline to our kids is my calling, then so be it. Here I am…writing down what comes into my head and heart. I am only a messenger. My engagement and my courage pales to that of our Young Life leaders and volunteers. They live the words that Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians, “I want them to be knit together by strong ties of love. I want them to have complete confidence that they understand God’s mysterious plan, which is Christ himself. In Him lie hidden all the treasure of wisdom and knowledge. I am telling you this so no one will deceive you with well-crafted arguments.” Colossians 2:2-4

We have such a small window of opportunity to help our kids define who they are and who they will become. As parents, we do this throughout their younger lives. We keep doing it until they reach their teenage years and learn to fly on their own. The problem is that they will not fly alone, and well-crafted arguments are on the Internet 24/7, and promises of a better high through this or that drug are way too available, and sex is okay because everybody is doing it. They will fly. We cannot stop that, and without a connection, they will fly with whatever or whoever becomes the source that defines them. Young Life will not reach them all, but they will keep reaching, and they will keep flying alongside, and they will continue loving no matter how ugly it gets on the frontlines.

It was God’s answers to our prayers during the life and death struggles of our son that raised our consciousness. Our son did not have the choice when he had to face death, but he had the courage to stare it down. I have also seen his courage when he DID have a choice. He has chosen to dedicate his time as a volunteer Young Life leader assigned to a high school where he goes to college. He is facing the enemy head-on. His courage surpasses mine, and I am nearly three times his age. Though not necessarily proud of saying this, I am so glad it is not up to me to be in the middle of that chaos.

But…I find that God is not going let me off the hook; not after getting us to University Hospital in just over a half an hour, blinding the State Police to a speeding truck, delivering our son into the best hands and best eyes…twice. No. Quite frankly, I owe Him more than I can ever repay, not to mention the gift His Son paid on my behalf. I am so way deep in debt in that regard that I discover that I do not only have a role, I have a responsibility. I have an opportunity to respond to a gift Whose value is beyond measure. We all have this role and this opportunity in one way or another.

These kids represent our future…and I know how cliché that sounds, but they truly are the future in-flight surgeons with the best hands and the future chiefs of surgery with the best eyes. There is no doubt in my mind or in my heart that I am called to support those who do a job that I could not. A little time and little money to support funding those with the courage to reach our kids and create an environment of loving trust…and…have the endurance to wait out the question, “Why do you care?”

That seems like a pretty safe investment to make, and the good news is…I do not have to hang out to do it. With my support…with your support…there are some very special, dedicated, and courageous young adults willing to go where we cannot and do what we could never pull off for the love of a teenager. If you have a teenager, there is likely a Young Life program somewhere nearby. Support them. If your teens have grown up and are on their own, there is probably a family or friend who still has those four hardest years to endure. Support them. Help them by supporting your local Young Life program whether you have a kid involved or not. I promise you that you will never have to hang out either.

Thanks for reading and God bless!

Gary G. Wise
Workforce Performance Advocate, Coach, Speaker 
(317) 437-2555
Web: Living In Learning