A Letter to Students

Dear Students,

This letter is for you. I realize that this is published in a medium you aren’t likely to see- a blog.  What teen reads a blog? My hope is that your parents will read these words and get them in front of you.  I’m writing this letter because I know that there is a lot you are dealing with during this season. You feel it, yet might not know how to express it. Or you may feel it and want to express it, but don’t know if you have permission to express it. I mean, “Why talk about the loss of a sports season when your parents are dealing with the loss of a job?”

Your grief may seem small in comparison to others or to the adults in your life. They are dealing with “real problems”, you are dealing with problems of privilege. We adults might not say it that way, but that’s the way we can make it feel.

Let me first say that I don’t see your losses and suffering that way, and I don’t think Jesus does either. They are real to you. They are big to you. So they deserve space to be recognized. They need space to be talked about. You need an opportunity to lament- not complain- but lament. Confession: We don’t always know how to lament well. We adults, don’t always know how to create space for lament.  We sometimes think, because Jesus was raised from the dead, we, Christians, have no “right” to lament. That is simply not true. We should lament.

Lament is a passionate expression of grief or sorrow. It is Christian to lament. Complaining tends to be the expression of dissatisfaction about something to someone. Lamenting is sorrow or grief about the reality of something.  Complaining is sorrow or annoyance about something I deem unjust. Lamenting is sorrow that your vacation was canceled.  Complaining is sorrow that the vacation, I deserve, is cancelled. Lamenting is sorrow because of brokenness. Complaining is sorrow that the universe doesn’t bend its will to ours.

What happens, and what has probably happened in this season, is that your heart is feeling sorrow and grief and what comes out is complaining.  We, adults, aren’t always good at recognizing lament hidden behind a complaint. Or maybe you do lament, but we don’t have a theology of lament.  We don’t see it as a recognition of a fallen, sinful world.  Too often we jump to the “Good News” without talking about the reality of the bad news. Sin, brokenness, and a fallen world are a reality.  A reality that isn’t just hypothetical or general.  It is real.  It shows up in big and small ways. And good news can only be good to the degree we recognize the bad in a real way, not just hypothetically. So, I want you to know that I understand there is a lot to lament about right now.

Your sport’s seasons are cancelled.  Your summer plans are likely to change, if they haven’t already. No overseas GO trips or overnight summer youth camps.  Vacations are cancelled, changed, or delayed. No end of the school year activities. Crisis-schooling has been, very likely, frustrating and daunting.  Hours on the computer, assignments minus instruction, grades, but they don’t count, but can count if you want them to. That’s frustrating and confusing all at once.

To our Seniors, no cap and gown ceremonies.  This thing you’ve been expecting since kindergarten will not happen. Do you cry or complain? Is it a big deal or not so important? You still graduate, right? It’s hard to know how to feel.  A weird sense of emptiness, of not being able to orient yourself to what’s going hangs in the air.  It’s like a fog. It has a form, but you can’t hold it. It’s tangible and not tangible. Something more has been lost than just a ceremony, a trip, or time together with friends.  It’s a peculiar feeling. Not like a death, but exactly like a death.  And that doesn’t make much sense.

And the cancellations keep coming in waves.  It would have been one thing to cancel everything up front, but it’s been a slow trickle of disappointment. You’re  probably apprehensive to even hope in summer plans. And you carry the hidden stress of your parents’ job situation as well. You feel it even if they try to hide it from you.  You hear the hushed conversations and see the forced smiles. You know there is stress. You carry that weight too.

I’m sure there is more you could add to my list. It’s not comprehensive, just a sample.  I wish I could read this letter to each of you individually, sit with you, and hear what sorrow you have to share. This isn’t a “But Jesus” letter, where I turn everything on a dime. Redemption, reconciliation, and maturity of faith rarely “turn on a dime”. I will say this though- this season will either leave you bitter or more hopeful in Jesus.  There is no other option.  If you think there is a third way, you are kidding yourself.  There is a way that seems like an alternative to bitterness or hope in Jesus, but it is a lie. The false third way, is to pretend you’re not sad, have that sorrow turn into bitterness deep down and hide it, and then have that bitterness spill out next time suffering calls your name.  Bitterness or hope in Jesus, there are only two roads.

I do think the Bible speaks to you in this moment.  In many ways actually, but in one way I’d like to address in particular. It’s not just about what the Bible says, but more about the process God wants you to walk through.  A process, not a “turn on a dime” moment.

“We rejoice in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 5:3-5)

Paul can speak about rejoicing in suffering because he knows something about suffering with faith in Jesus.  He knows, not just because of what he has learned through study, but what he has learned through the process of experiencing life. Suffering is a process that produces endurance, then character, then hope.  Not always at the same time. It doesn’t mean Paul gets used to the pain of suffering. No, pain is pain. But he looks and knows that suffering with a posture of faith in Jesus, produces hope, because he has experienced it. 

I’d like to think, as Paul lay blind after meeting Jesus, he wasn’t thinking first about how excited he was that Jesus had come to meet Him.  He was probably confused, disoriented, and trying to come to terms with the new reality that he had just witnessed. Sound familiar? It was a process for him, I believe. Paul is not just telling the Romans to rejoice, he is inviting them to experience it too.

How about an analogy? Imagine you were forced to run 10 miles.  For most of you, it would be painful. It would hurt. You would suffer. Not only that, but the next day, you might actually be hurting more. You may have residual suffering (sore muscles) from the initial suffering.  But let’s say you kept at it. You kept running.  Eventually, you would gain endurance, a sustained ability to keep at it. After awhile, you might even begin to see yourself as a “runner”. Eventually, you might even have enough confidence to enter a race, knowing that you could trust your abilities. Now I would say, if you want to get better at running, it will never get easier.  You will always have to push yourself, thus you will never outgrow that feeling of suffering.  But you might endure the suffering because you now know (you have record of experience) that the process is producing something positive in yourself. 

The point of the analogy is that what started off as an act that only seemed to produced suffering and pain, now produces endurance, confidence, and trust, even though it is still painful. Now the analogy falls short, in that, our suffering with a posture of faith in Jesus, shouldn’t produce confidence in our ability, but a hope and confidence in Jesus.

Paul says “We can rejoice in our suffering, knowing…”. That’s the key. You need to know that your suffering- this loss- is not in vain. The hard part about that knowing, is that this COVID-19 season might be like that first day after your 10 mile run. It was painful then and even more painful now.  Nothing good has “seemed” to be produced from it, yet.

There are two truths you need to hear. You aren’t getting these sports seasons back.  You won’t get 2 weeks of vacation where you’ve lost 1. You may never get to walk across a stage and get your diploma.  The may just mail it to you. The other truth you need to hear: You will suffer again.  This is a loss and its big to you.  That much I’ve tried to validate, but its not the last one.  We can’t even promise you that this quarantine won’t happen again. That’s not comforting. But if we are to be comforted we must start with the reality of our lament. A real savior can handle the reality of our sorrow.

The comfort is this- Your hope in Jesus will never be wasted! “Hope doesn’t put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” God’s love is everlasting.  “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting”. (Psalm 103:17)  If you were secure in His love 6 months ago, be secure now.  His love hasn’t changed.

But as Paul alludes to in Romans, this isn’t a comfort you can only hear about.  This is a process you must experience.  Your suffering, with a posture of faith towards Jesus (that’s paramount) will produce endurance.  That endurance, character, and that character hope in the goodness and greatness of Jesus. God has promised that to us. You will get bitter or you will see Jesus better.

Maybe you are a young Christian, maybe Jesus is making you a Christian with endurance.  Maybe you have faithful endurance and Jesus is weathering you, giving you deep roots to be able to produce fruit even in a storm.  Or maybe Jesus is setting your hope on that eternal weight of glory in Christ Jesus! (2 Cor. 4:17) Either way, it is a process. And here is the beauty of the process. 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 also talks about another process of suffering. Read it will you.  I’ll sum it up, you suffer, the God of all comfort, comforts you, this allows you to comfort those that are suffering, thus giving others love and grace.  Your suffering produces opportunities to show the love of Christ to others who are suffering.  This process isn’t just for you.  It’s for future people and situations you will find yourself in.  You will get bitter or you will love Jesus better and that will have an effect on others eventually.

I can speak from some experience.  I love Jesus.  I’ve loved Jesus and failed and continued to love Jesus more.  I’ve loved Jesus and had opportunities unjustly ripped from me.  I endured and loved Jesus more.  I’ve experience loss and barrenness and hoped in Jesus through tears.  Talk to older people in our congregation.  Their testimonies will speak of a real Jesus that walked them through-not above- their suffering. 

I’m on the same road as many of you. A few steps ahead maybe, but the same road.  I’ve known a little about the rejoicing Paul speaks about. Maybe more than you, but not as much as some. I really wish there was a different way to mature in Jesus Christ, but God in is His divine wisdom knows what we need more then we do. I’d like to think that I can rejoice because I’ve developed, by the Spirit, some endurance, character, and hope. 

My prayer is that the same would be true for you.  It’s a process. As John Piper might say, “Don’t waste your pandemic.” This may be your first brush with suffering and loss.  It won’t be you last.  Endurance doesn’t feel like rejoicing.  But keep beholding Jesus.  In the end it will, you will see.  Don’t take my word for it. Take His Word and experience it. Hold these truths together and press on: You have experienced real loss and that produces suffering and grief, but no suffering will be wasted if our hearts are postured towards our King Jesus in faith.  “Taste and see that the Lord is good. Blessed is the [teen] who takes refuge in Him.” (Psalm 34:8)

Your pastor and fellow traveler,

Todd Van Dyke