In Young Life, we do a great job of celebrating the successes. The kids whose lives went from nowhere to somewhere, from dead-end to star-studded. Jesus has a way of making glorious redemption stories, and we love to celebrate those times and those kids.
But maybe we don’t always do the best job of communicating the failures, the heart-aches, and the tragedies. Yesterday, we celebrated the life of a young man who touched the lives of many in a way that few could, yet we also mourned the loss of a life with more potential than we had probably ever seen in our years of ministry. Jake came into our lives bigger than life itself, wearing a batting helmet and a 10,000 watt smile. His was a life on a collision-course with disaster, but through the efforts of numerous teachers, coaches, friends, Young Life leaders, and pastors, Jake came to know Christ at Malibu. Jake grew quickly and devoured the gospel ferociously. He loved Christ, and his transformation sparked a school-wide surge in Young Life attendance, youth group growth, and numerous friends who came to Christ. In spite of his growth, however, Jake continued to struggle with his inner demons, and though he led Young Life and continued to inspire others, Jake himself struggled to believe all that the gospel claimed. A brilliant intellect, Jake took philosophy courses in college and rationalized himself completely away from Christ. He spent the next 10 years spiraling downward, simultaneously loving others and destroying himself. Two weeks ago in the early pre-dawn hours of the Bay Area, Jake’s body was found on the light rail line. The news article listed him a transient, his body identifiable only through fingerprints.
In my 20 years of Young Life ministry, I have never been around a young man who was as well-loved by others as Jake. He inspired dozens, if not hundreds of others. Why could he not depend upon the truth that, for a short while, he shared so forcefully with others? A truth which changed the lives of those around him? His previously lost, directionless high school friends now are teachers, coaches, pastors, Young Life leaders, missionaries, and faithful Christian parents. Their lives were forever changed by the impact of Jake’s life, but his life, though it bore fruit a hundred-fold, did not come to the end we had hoped for. Jake himself knew he wouldn’t die of old age; it was the last thing he wanted. Ultimately, I believe Jake rejected God’s love for him because he was never able to love himself. He wanted to be better than he was, but Jake’s standards were perfection. God’s offer of perfection for Jake through Christ, however, somehow rang hollow whenever Jake looked in the mirror and realized he never measured up.
Of course I ask the question, “What more could I have done?” Could I have stayed in touch with Jake more closely through college? Could I have argued the gospel more forcefully, more effectively? Could I have loved him with more endurance, more wisdom, more patience? Certainly. And I know I’m not the only one asking these questions today. Probably hundreds of people are asking the same question of themselves. What could I have done differently that would have led to a different end for Jake?
Why do some kids who have no hope and no future suddenly grasp onto the gospel and have their lives become shining examples of God’s goodness? And why do other kids make quick starts and then flounder around, spiral out of control, and destroy themselves? If we give God the glory in one instance, it might seem right to give God the blame for the other, but I can’t quite go there. We can be super-spiritual and say that, “God works in mysterious ways,” but that’s pretty unsatisfactory to me as well. The truth lies somewhere in between, and is unfathomably complex.
In the end, I suppose all I can do is remain faithful to God’s calling, and you know what? I’m not really very good at that. But I leave it in God’s hands. Jake was a lesson in what could have been.
And today, I was at the baptism of another “Jake” in another time and another place. Her name is Grace, and she is every bit as full of life as Jake was. Grace is a work in progress, rough around the edges, full of questions and controversy and a deep sense of justice that is outraged at the reality of life around her. And Grace, too, is widely loved by everyone that comes in contact with her. She seems bigger than life itself sometimes. And now the question comes again: how do we make sure Grace walks the straight and narrow, that she reaches her full potential, that she becomes all that God has in store for her? How do we ensure that He who has begun a good work in her will truly bring it to completion? How do we make sure she isn’t derailed by the empty philosophies of the world when she goes off to college next fall?
We can certainly do things better, but ultimately, of course, free will is a tricky thing, and we have an adversary. There are no guarantees except to continue to trust God and pray for Grace, and grace for all the kids that we work with. We can be available, insert ourselves into their lives, ask the nosy questions, live lives of real faith that can’t be glossed over easily by cynical students. When it comes down to it, it never gets easier to let go of students and send them off to university and out into the world, like first-day-kindergartners disappearing down the road on the bus as our eyes mist over.
Please pray for me as I work through this. Pray for Grace. Pray for all of us in the business of presuming to work with kids’ souls, that we won’t shy away from the hard work and the harsh reality that although we may prefer to celebrate the successes and share the wondrous God-stories, sometimes we need to grapple with the “what-ifs” of kids like Jake who taste the gospel and know it is good, yet choose to walk away from it nonetheless and girls like Grace who may, or who may not, be the ones to change the world.
Spread the Word.