Leadership retreats are the worst.
Some people really get into “leadership culture.” They read all the latest books and blogs; they go to conferences and cast visions and such. But I just can’t do it. Days spent talking about the habits of highly effective people who know how to win friends and influence people, who put the largest rocks in the bottom of the jar and write TEAM with no “i” on post-it notes as they strategically ideate 110% effort leave me wishing for a speedy death.
So naturally our first real ministry activity in Warrensburg would be a retreat with the Student Leadership Team. And things were not made better when I found out the primary activity would be to follow an outline from Donald Miller’s Storyline material.1 I was not hiding the contempt well, and no doubt Brad was beginning to rethink this whole “Josh would be a great addition to our team!” thing . . . But despite my best efforts to avoid it, I found myself circled up in a corner of the dimly lit Campus House basement with the other staff and student leaders just days before my first semester in Warrensburg began. . . . talking.
It took hours – days, actually – and my head definitely dropped more than once. Yet in hindsight, this was to become the beginning of the most transformative season of my life.
Went around sharing our “storylines”: talking about the highs, lows, “inciting incidents,” and watershed moments of our lives, and I was dumbfounded by the experiences contained within this small group of young people. There were of course a couple people who had relatively straightforward lives: grew up in church-going families, straight-laced and successful. But for everyone of them, were two people who had contemplated and attempted suicide, people whose parents had died prematurely, who had been abused, raped, and neglected; who had stolen, run away, cheated, been blackout drunk in public, and well, just about everything else that would cause many stupid elders to stage an intervention or excommunication.
Yet while I sat there listening to these students struggle to verbalize those parts of their stories they were willing to share, I was increasingly amazed at the brokenness these students represented.2 Each had been through their own hell – some still actively walked in it – yet there they were, opening the hidden parts of their lives to each other, taking solace in collective grief. As each person finished their story, it was as if their wounds were staunched by their neighbors, each offering those most holy words: me too.
Two days in that circle was like trying to escape a tidal wave on a deserted island, or find the exit in a hall of mirrors – everywhere I looked, I found my frustrated reflection staring at me, my own pain inexorably overtaking me. To this point, I had merely tried to leave the past behind – to start over. But with each story, these students were showing me the power of a lived story; demonstrating the Gospel truth that those who wish to lead with Christ must do so with a limp, drinking His cup and submerged in His waters. Those two days did more than perhaps any other experience in the year following the collapse of my old life to break me open: till then I had been trying to fill in the cracks, but now I found these twenty-somethings with lifetimes of pain in their eyes forcing a wedge into the gaps, their every word driving it deeper and deeper until the concealed pain started to pour out like new wine too strong for its old skin.
That year changed everything.
Not only was my understanding of the Bible shifting, but every conversation with a student seemed to teach something new about the Law of Grace; every shared story unlocking another room of covered furniture hiding a lifetime of small miseries from the dust and the light. I saw before me daily the proof of lives transformed through suffering, and of a community trusting enough of the pain to let them lead from that woundedness, despite knowing that many of these “issues” had yet to be fully worked out.
We must have told our story a hundred times that year, and as Mikala watched me grieve and I tried to stay afloat until it all could spill out, we edged our way toward wholeness. That was the year we began laying the foundation of a new life, the year we haltingly fell into our family motto (adapted from the “prayer of St. Francis”):
Make us an instrument of Your Peace.
As usual, Mikala was lightyears ahead of me down the road toward the “radically unprotected life” of the Cross, yet despite my constant ache for what had been left behind, despite the backsliding, pride, and sneering – and in concert with my intellectual and spiritual evolution – I began to open. Slowly, agonizingly, my hands stretched out, arms unlocking to reveal a heart finally open to joy (and pain) it had never allowed itself to experience. For the first time, my whole life was finally laid upon the altar, offered to bring more than simply life for myself, but for the world.
Thanks largely to a small group of young men and women who were willing to open their arms and hearts, I was dying.
And for the first time I felt alive.
1. First, Blue Like Jazz is insufferable. Yeah, I said it. Second, like most things Miller does I found Storyline unoriginal and simplistic, but people acted like it was mind-blowing and revolutionary. But then again, I’m a quibbling prick so take my review with a whole shaker of salt.↩
2. This was not some forced sharing that would result in its own kind of trauma. They were told multiple times they could hold back anything they wanted and would not be judged either for their deeds or silence.↩