(A Turning Point Story)
Have you ever met someone who, in a matter of a few minutes, made you so mad you wanted to reach across a Pizza Hut booth and slap some sense into him? Or lay hands on him… by the throat? Or baptize him with a pitcher of Pepsi (‘cause he’s not worth wasting a pitcher of real Coke on)?
If you answered yes to any of those, you may have once been in youth ministry, too. Or you’re just a little weird when it comes to Pizza Hut.
This is a story with a surprise ending. This is Jason’s story. And it could be yours… or the next teenager you meet.
Brewton, Alabama. Late 1970s. I am 19 years old, and in sole possession of my first church staff job. I’m the youth director, as they were called back then.
It was summertime, and after church on Sunday nights, the thing to do in a 6,500-or-so town is to gather up whoever wants to go and head off to the local purveyor of all things pepperoni and extra cheese.
On this particular evening, a lady in our church asked if I would mind if her nephew could join us, then if I could give him a ride back to her place out in the country. Jason was visiting from Pensacola, and June thought he would enjoy hanging out with some of the locals.
Of course, I said, and we were off.
Jason made a great first impression. What was not to like? He was good looking, with sandy blonde hair and piercing, but friendly blue eyes. He seemed confident and conversational, and more at ease with himself than most 15-year-olds who had just completed their sophomore year.
After introducing him to some of the other teenagers in the group, we claimed two or three booths at the Pizza Hut and spread out the menus, with Jason sitting directly across from me.
That’s when Jason asked what had to be the dumbest, most anger-generating question in the history of sophomores anywhere.
“Do you guys drink?” he asked with a friendly smile.
I know there was at least a split-second pause, if not longer. There had to have been time to register the look of surprise, indignation, and pastoral huffiness I began to emit.
Operation Shock and Law, people. And it worked on me, big-time.
“No!” I said with a bit of scorn.
“Okay,” he said, without losing his smile. Then… same look on his face… Jason looked across the booth and me and said, “I’m backslidden!”
I have to tell you at this point that I had (and generally still have) this view that says that anybody who brags on being backslidden has never really had anything to slide back from.
(Note: In case I just lost you at the Pizza Hut, I should explain that “backslidden” is a term used by church people in certain circles to describe a true Christ follower who, well, isn’t exactly following Christ right now. Sort of like when Peter denied Jesus. I should also explain that neither I nor the people at Pepsico/Pizza Hut condone teenage drinking, even if the teenager IS backslidden. Now, back to the booth…)
I didn’t say anything to Jason’s happy declaration about being backslidden. But every ministerial hair on the back of my neck was reared up and ready for battle. Who did this snotty kid think he was? Asking about the consumption of the devil’s brew on my watch? Bragging about what his relationship with God lacked?
Hmmph. I don’t even remember tasting the pepperoni that night… even though the conversation moved on and was pleasant enough. But I was both dreading and anticipating that long drive in the dark countryside. I was sharpening my self-righteous claws to dig into some fresh sophomore meat.
Jason’s seat belt was hardly buckled when I had my opportunity. After a casual question about life in Pensacola, he repeated his earlier statement:
Gently (no, really), I began to probe if he had ever really committed his life to Christ.
With his typical confidence, Jason interrupted, “Oh I’m saved. In fact, in my freshman year, I led 43 kids to the Lord at my school.”
“Then why are you living like such an idiot now?” I asked. (I did say I was young and in my first church, didn’t I?)
By now we had left the city limits and were driving through the quiet, dark countryside. Jason’s answer made the drive a little darker, and a lot quieter.
“It all began,” he said, “when my parents got a divorce.”
Oh. Dear. God. Didn’t Jesus once say something about a millstone and the depths of the sea for anyone who caused one of these “little ones” to stumble?
I never saw Jason again after that night. I sincerely hope he was able to make peace with his pain and with the Lord. I actually have all the confidence in the world that he did.
But in the 32 years since then, I have heard stories like his repeated again and again. The circumstances always vary, but the results are eerily similar.
- “It all started when I lost my job.”
- “It all started when my dad had an affair.”
- “It all started when my best friend betrayed me.”
- “It all started when my wife left me.”
- “It all started when my pastor left” (seriously?).
- “It all started when I went off to college.”
- “It all started when I found out my daughter was molested by someone we trusted.”
I need to say this as gently as I can. Especially if something like this comes even remotely close to your story. But I need to say it nevertheless… and if I could have had the opportunity to talk to Jason when I’d had a little more time to grow up myself, here is what I would say:
I am sincerely and deeply sorry that happened. I am sorry we live in a fallen, broken world. I am even more sorry that it seems as though the Lord could have stopped that from happening, and didn’t.
But your circumstances and pain can’t change the fact that He loves you with an everlasting love. And even when people were walking away, or hurting you, or rejecting you, or even abusing you, He was reaching out to you. Loving you. Offering you life and peace.
He still is.
I have learned that Jesus is a friend of a wounded heart – that the Bender of the rainbow is the Mender of the broken.
I have learned that the evil that men do is neither a reflection of God’s heart, nor an expression of His will.
You may think He’s sleeping on the job. But He is asking you the same question He has always asked… “Even now, will you trust Me?”
I have also learned that before you or I start trying to hold God accountable for His activity or lack thereof, we’d better man up. As Job discovered, that isn’t likely to turn out well.
One day Jason will stand before God and give an account of his life and influence. He will receive reward for those 43 lives he once impacted; Jesus promised that. But what about his impact since then?
One thing is sure… when Jason’s name is called, those parents who sent his young life reeling won’t be there.
Neither will your biggest sources of pain.
It’ll just be you, the Lord Jesus, and the choices you have made to trust and keep following… or to harden your heart.
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