The year 2020 will be remembered for many things: a viral pandemic, worldwide lockdowns, and social upheaval. As for me (and many others), the main theme was attending a certain event – the funeral. Between December 2019 and December 2020, eight family members and close friends died, many of them unexpected, including my mother, grandmother, and uncle. The upheaval wasn’t just out there on the news, I felt it inside my own quarantine-locked-down home.
As a minister (and a full-grown adult for that matter), I have known that death, even sudden death, is a part of life. What I did not anticipate was the barrage of so many deaths in such a short span of time, combined with the fact that I couldn’t mourn with those close to me. My mother died in the thick of the lockdown, when only 10 people could gather anywhere. Trying to pick 10 people to be at my mother’s funeral was extremely difficult because she had impacted so many lives. Even more painful was the fact that some declined invitations due to the threat of exposure to the virus. For the rest, they watched the livestream, which brought some closure, but funerals are not meant to be broadcasts passively consumed. The power of a funeral lies in the mutual edification found in the physical presence of the bereaved.
In Isaiah 61, which Jesus quotes in the New Testament, he proclaims that the Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon him to preach good news to the poor…to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes. For the Christian in difficult situations, God exchanges beauty for ashes. So how, you may ask, did God give me beauty for ashes in this time? There are three ways, and they all have had a positive impact on my ministry to teenagers.
A Vanishing Mist
“Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14). While we may know this in theory, we often live as if we don’t really believe it. We have convinced ourselves as a society that the advancement of medical technology guarantees that we will all live long and healthy lives well into our 90s. How many people in their 20s and 30s leave interactions with friends and loved ones thinking it could be the last time they see each other?
This pandemic has reminded us that life is short, sometimes unexpectedly short. That definitely was that case in my family, as my mother and uncle both died suddenly and prematurely without much warning. While that can be unsettling to think about, it can also remind us about the brevity of this life we have been given. My preaching and teaching to teenagers is always more vibrant when I am aware of my own death. We must not waste any moment but make the most of every opportunity we have been given, for we do not know when the Lord will call us home.
Detachment from Earthly Things
Death reframes our thinking. Jesus himself told us in Matthew 6:19 not to “store up treasures on earth…” but rather “store up treasures in heaven.” Too often we can become consumed with the life we live in the here and now. Teenagers are notorious for thinking in the moment: will I get a good grade on the test? Will the boy or girl I like actually like me back? Will I get into a good college? Why aren’t more people following me on Instagram?
Going to 6 funerals during 2020, both live-streamed and in person, reminded me of the importance of eternity. When I begin to think about worldly pursuits or accomplishments, I have that still voice in my head reminding me, “what is this worth in the long run?” When I see teenagers wax poetic over something trivial such as a video game, or a social media post, I try to be excited with them, but deep down I have an ambivalent response. When I consider how much the mental health condition of teenagers has deteriorated over the pandemic, a part of me wants to exclaim, I hope you realize that these last two years can teach us about what is really important.
Teenagers (like the rest of us) need to be reminded of what is of eternal value, which will help frame their perspective of temporary pursuits. When they are reminded of the cross – Christ’s death and resurrection – and the eternal life that awaits those who trust in him, priorities change. Over time, losses on this side of eternity lose their sting and the pursuit of worldly accomplishments lose their all-or-nothing appeal.
The Judgment to Come
This is perhaps the scariest part of all. It’s not kosher to bring this subject up. It’s easier to kick the can down the road and spend a little more time dancing the night away. But eventually the bill comes due and you have to pay.
One day when I was working in sales, I noticed that some of the sales reps walked around with sullen looks on their faces. When I met with the CEO of the company, he mentioned that the reps had just received their yearly quotas. In other words, they knew that playtime was over and that they would be held accountable for their work, which was going to be challenging to say the least. To think that we will be judged by God is sobering. Many of our teenagers live in a culture that tells them that those who proclaim this message are backwards and trying to scare them – that they should tune them out and fulfill their wildest dreams, because that’s what leads to happy life. But the truth is, if you are in Christ, and have sought his forgiveness to pay the penalty for your sin, trusting in his work of redemption, that day is a reason to celebrate, not to dread.
As the spiritual guides of today’s youth, whether pastors, youth group leaders or parents, we would do well to remind them about this truth—that God will judge sin, but pardons those who seek refuge in him through His Son. When we experience suffering of any kind – whether a death, job loss, or rejection, it appears as if our world is ending, and teenagers can take these feelings to unhealthy lengths. We can encourage them to trust that Christ suffered on our behalf, giving us the hope to look beyond our difficult circumstances to the inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.