You are welcome, he said, just as you are
I was a punk that Friday evening when my mother forced me to attend a youth group game night. The old church, repurposed to host worship services for junior high and high school students, was made even more inviting for young people. But I didn’t want to attend.
“You can make me come,” I told my mother as I stormed out of the passenger side door of our Datsun 810, “but you can’t make me have fun.”
I slammed the door and stood there, uncertain what to do next. I stood facing the white, concrete block wall of the old church.
Could I open the side door to the youth building and enter? Alone?
I dared to glance back at my mother, idling the car as she waited for me to obey.
My mother’s glare – not unkind – showcased her unbending will. I would open that door. I would go inside.
And so I did, shrinking through the doorway, scowling and unhappy.
Games for the throne
The sanctuary – wooden pews removed – was now a game room. Ping-pong and other game tables shared the space with a small spattering of junior high students I had seen in Sunday school but did not know well enough to approach.
I stood there. The new youth pastor, Rick, approached me and smiled.
“Hi, Sara! I’m glad you’re here.”
“Well, I’m not glad to be here,” I said, sulking. “I didn’t want to come.”
Rather than reply to that, he just looked at me and handed me a ping-pong paddle. Then he motioned for me to walk with him.
“Come with me,” he said. “I want you to meet someone.”
We walked over to a dark-haired junior high student I didn’t know who was playing at a table with Becky, one of the youth leaders, and another woman. The ball skittered away from the table as we neared it and stopped.
“Jennifer, this is Sara,” Rick said to the student, taking advantage of the pause in play. “Sara, this is Jennifer. I think you already know Becky. And this is Cathy, my wife.”
The group invited me to join them, so I stepped to Becky’s side, and we took on Cathy and Jennifer, bantering as we played.
When Becky and Cathy went to engage some other students, Jennifer and I tried foosball and air hockey. Then we returned to the ping-pong table, chattering with each other and other students as we did. By the time Rick called us all to gather for a brief meeting, I was having a blast. We were laughing as we tapped the light ball back and forth over the net on the table.
Despite my earlier determination to rebel, my reticence had evaporated as the fun I initially had refused lightened my heart. Laughter and joy replaced the sulky, insecure, lonely girl who had arrived in a fit of rebellion a short time ago.
Play for the heart
When we joined Rick at the front of the little church, he thanked us for coming and looked around at the handful or two of junior high students who’d shown for the game night.
“Thank you for coming,” he said, seeming truly grateful. “I believe God wants to do something big with our youth group – and I believe He wants to use you to do it.
“You are the core of our youth group. God is going to use you to change the rest of the group. We need to pray for the older students.”
When Rick spoke, he looked each one of us in the eye, one by one. I believed him. I believed God could use me with my new friends to make a difference.
At his request, we joined hands and prayed then.
Why the difference?
When my mother returned to the little church to pick up the 14-year-old rebel she’d left behind, she found a different child.
Why? We’d had no sermon. No singing. No altar call.
I’d entered as my worst self. I exited as my best. What had happened in between?
I had been welcomed and befriended – just as I was – and told God would use me to make a difference. More importantly, I simply accepted the gift and allowed it to transform me.
As I look back, I recognize that night changed the trajectory of my life. I was a believer in Jesus Christ, but I was at a tipping point. Would I live for my Savior? Or follow another path?
Jennifer and I became fast friends; Becky became our mentor, teaching us how to be disciples of Jesus. We did serve as the core of the youth group, and God began a revival in the youth and our whole church. And He started a revival in me that set me on my lifelong journey of faith.
Looking back — and forward
As I reflected on that night, such a small incident, I felt how undeserving I was. Inwardly, I may have felt insecure, lonely, and afraid. But outwardly? I was rather unpleasant. (I think my mother would have agreed.) I mean, I had told my youth pastor I didn’t want to be there!
But he welcomed me anyway. Just as I was.
Isn’t that what God does for us through the sacrifice of His Son? You are welcome, He says, come as you are.
The Bible says that God demonstrated His love for me in this: While I was still sinning, Jesus died for me (Romans 5:8).
He didn’t ask me to clean up my act and behave before He invited me to become His child. He doesn’t ask me to be perfect now, either. God welcomes me still.
But how often I behave as if I must earn His favor! As if I must do everything right.
My husband teases me, saying I don’t just want to be liked; I want to be “well-liked.” Even my colleague Rachel will say after I’ve gone the extra mile on the job: “Sara, everyone already likes you.” And just this morning, my workout partner Connie told me I didn’t have to be nice all the time!
As if I’m trying to earn favor from people, too. Perhaps I am. I’ve admitted I don’t handle criticism well. Why? Because I want to be perfect. And I am not.
And yet God loves me and welcomes me now just as I am, past and present (and future!) failures and all.
Not because of what I’ve done. Not because of what I can do.
Because of Him.
He welcomes you, too.
Just as Rick extended a welcome to an undeserving teenager.
You are welcome. Come as you are.
But you must accept the invitation.
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