A few months ago I found out that one of the teenagers in our youth group has been diagnosed with a severe stage of cancer.
It's gut-wrenching and heart-breaking. It makes you wake up to the fragility of life, recognising that all we have and all that lies before us could be taken away in an instant.
Last week he came up and talked to me after the church service. I wasn't sure how I was going to navigate the interaction, or in what state he was going to be. But, as he usually is, he was phenomenally upbeat and incredibly positive.
He started to talk to me about chapters, as if his life was a book.
"This could be the last chapter in my story, or it might just be one of many more. We don't know yet."
His maturity and calmness was mind-blowing, as if somehow his soul was at peace. I think that most people in life spend years longing for that sort of contentment and inner-peace—not to mention the many different avenues that people traverse in order to find it the wrong way.
Very recently his dad stood in front of the church and gave a bare-all account of what's happened for his son, from the beginning of the diagnosis till now. It left me with plenty to think about.
He let out tears as he talked about the struggle, and he processed out loud the hurt, uncertainty and path ahead.
It was raw and exposing—and it was incredibly refreshing to hear. Too often I think we find ourselves putting up masks, pretending that everything is okay, not wanting to let people into our inner pain.
I was left pondering, and might be for some time, one comment the dad mentioned: "I'm telling you all of this because you are our family and because a lot of you know us and care for us."
Wow. Sometimes it's really easy to bag the Church, or to dig through its many faults. Too many of our young people leave the Church for whatever reason to never return, or they head to larger and more popular churches in order to abandon morning tea rosters or small talk with grandmas.
But, oh, what it is to be known and valued, in an inclusive and caring community! Sometimes community can be hard and frustrating but how can we place a value on having people who are there for us in the bad as well as the good?
And do you know what? Some people find that community in church, some find it elsewhere, but some don't have any group that they would call a community, where they feel safe, valued and supported. What a fantastic opportunity that we have to be able to create that for others.
The thing is: we know life is not fair and we never know what is around the corner. Someone might do something horrible to us or something might happen completely out of the blue. For some of us, that pain is all too real.
But while we are all in control of our decisions and we are the ones who get to decide what we do with our choices, fear should not be a guiding force. What if we as a people could be known not just for being people of love, grace, forgiveness, but also for creating a safe place for others to thrive in?
Andy Stanley talked in Louder than Words about how to live a life with no regrets. He said our lives come down to our character and the choices we make.
Each of us has the ability to help create community and a safe place for people, so that when times are hard there is a safety net of cherishing and being cherished, supporting and being supported by one another.
Part of me wonders, regarding the teenager with cancer, how I would respond to something so momentous, so life-changing.
I asked the 17 year old how he was feeling.
"I'm just incredibly grateful," he said. "I'm grateful for the life I've had so far, for the family I've grown up in, the friends I have, the experiences I've been able to enjoy."
Wow, what a statement. May we all be able to find and build communities that help us say the same thing, whether they are faith-based or not.
First published November 17, 2016
Matt Browning is a storyteller and lover of ideas. He has been involved with youth development and mentoring for 10 years, and this summer is launching a food caravan for youth unemployment.
Matt Browning's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/matt-browning.html