My wife likes to say that I am a pessimist; I argue that I am a realist. For example, when I’m watching an Arkansas Razorback football game, it doesn’t take me long to decide that we aren’t likely to win. To me, that’s not pessimism, it’s realism, based on the reality that the Razorbacks have only won 7 games over the past two combined seasons.
And I’m that way about other things too. As a minister, I’ve had ample opportunity to become very familiar with a lot of really good people, and in the process see how flawed they are. So when it comes to most people, I really don’t have very high expectations. Again, Caroline would call me a pessimist; I would argue that I’m a realist. Either way though, it’s really just an issue of semantics.
My realism/pessimism is useful in a lot of situations because it keeps me from getting my hopes up only to be disappointed by the end result. However, it’s neither helpful nor particularly faithful when it comes to my expectations of what God can do.
Which brings me to the Elf Party.
The Elf Party
A few years ago, a sweet lady at church came up with the idea of an “Elf Party” for our youth group, where our teens would play the role Santa’s elves by purchasing and wrapping gifts for the kids of a needy family. Generally, we would “adopt” a family from one of the local schools (anonymously), and our 10-15 teens would get a bunch of gifts for 3-4 kids who otherwise wouldn’t get much of a Christmas. It was great.
In addition to this, several adult members from our church would also “adopt” a child from one of the local schools on their own, and purchase gifts for them.
Well, during my study and practice of youth ministry, I have become increasingly convicted that young people need to spend a lot of time with older Christians. Developing relationships with older Christians is key ingredient to building a faith that lasts, and furthermore, serving alongside older Christians helps younger Christians to learn that service is an inherent part of the Christian life rather than an isolated youth group project.
With all that in mind, we decided that this past Christmas, we would expand the Elf Party to a church-wide event, and invite those adults who had participated on their own in the past to join in. We would all meet together, split up in groups to shop, and then come back and wrap the gifts together. Teens (and kids) working alongside adults all along the way. Also, since we were expanding our numbers, we decided to expand the number of kids we would adopt, so instead of the usual one family (of 3-4 kids) that I was used to, we adopted 26 kids (a large increase, I know).
And so we were all set. We picked a date on a Monday night, made a series of announcements about it at church, and got ready. For my part, I started worrying. Had we taken on too many kids? What would we do if we didn’t have enough people show up and volunteer to spend their money buying presents for others?
Then a winter storm came, a good bit of ice with six plus inches of snow on top (which is significant for here). Schools were closed on the Thursday and Friday before the Elf Party. Church services were cancelled on Sunday. It stayed so cold that the roads didn’t improve much—they would melt a little during the day and then refreeze at night and become hazardous again. School was cancelled again on Monday, and we decided to push the party back one day, to Tuesday night.
As Tuesday came around (and school was cancelled once again), I began to get really nervous. I received calls and texts from people who I had expected to be there who weren’t going to be able to make it because of the weather. The roads were still really bad in some places. By not having worship services on Sunday, we had missed our opportunity to push the event one last time to the whole congregation. Donations I had expected to receive in advance were minimal.
I really wasn’t sure what we were going to do when we had a dozen or so kids not get presents. I figured I would just go and pay for a bunch of stuff personally, which would have been a real concern—now that Caroline doesn’t teach and we are basically living on one salary (she has a small part-time job), there’s not a lot of extra money to go around.
And in the process of all of my worrying, I basically sold God short. I should’ve known better than to think that He would let us fail in an effort to show our love for our neighbors.
Because then Tuesday night came, and it was awesome. We filled up our 21-seat bus with people who had braved the roads to come help, and had to take several other vehicles besides. We all headed to Wal-Mart, and what a fun experience it was to bump into shopping groups from our church around every corner! We returned to the church building, and our fellowship hall was overflowing with happy, cabin fever-crazed people (this was the first time some of them had been out of their houses in days because of the storm). We spent the next hour or so in fellowship, sharing a quick meal together and then wrapping the gifts we had purchased.
And, as it turned out, we had just enough volunteers and funds to cover all of the needs. Our church family came together on an icy night and provided a Christmas for 26 kids who might not have had one otherwise.
An Important Lesson for a New Year
The point of this post is not to highlight what we did, or to emphasize how amazing we are. I was proud of and thankful for my brothers and sisters who came out to help, but that’s not my focus here. My focus is on how faithful God was at a time when my faith proved to be pretty weak. When I was full of worry and doubt and could see no way that we would be able to live up to the commitment that we made, God was faithful, providing all that we needed and teaching me a helpful lesson that I will remember.
Although our Elf Party was almost a month ago, it’s fitting that I share this story with you at the beginning of a new year. Because in 2014, I am determining (or resolving, if you will) that I am not going to sell God short. I am going to make big plans, and attempt big things (doing my best, of course, to make sure that those plans and things are in accordance with His will), and let God provide results that glorify Him.