My comfort zone is fairly wide. It has been stretched, twisted and beaten into submission over the years by experiences God has dragged me into or that I’ve unwittingly plunged myself into. (Unless we’re talking bodily harm here, in which case the zone is significantly smaller, although still probably bigger than the average 45-year-old woman’s. Chaperoning mission trips gets me into all kinds of predicaments — rock climbing, caving, whitewater rafting, rappelling — in an attempt to save face before a bunch of teenagers. Yes, I’m still vain enough to care what they think.)
However, this summer God forced me to confront new levels of discomfort I didn’t even realize I had. And, of course, He did so via one of His usual methods — the mid-summer mission trip.
When our new youth pastor, Cory, asked if I’d chaperone once again, I didn’t even hesitate. I’ve co-led our church’s winter weekend and summer week-long trips for teenagers for the past few years. I love watching the kids experience God in new ways and learn to serve Him by loving on people whom our society considers “the least of these.” By now teenagers, homeless people, earthy 20-year-old mission guides, soup kitchens, public prayer, and driving our church’s 15-passenger conversion van on urban freeways or Appalachian mountain roads are all within that comfort zone of mine. So I said, “Sure. I’d love to. Where are we going?”
And he said, “Vegas.”
Vegas. In July.
I wanted to ask a lot more questions, but I think I just said something like, “K. Sounds good.”
So off to Vegas we went — six high school seniors, one college sophomore, Cory and me — to spend a week in Sin City with an organization called Youth With a Mission (YWAM). Things were about to get uncomfortable. Rather than try to recap the whole trip, I’ll explain each episode by the level of discomfort it caused, from mild chafing to serious churning.
Discomfort #1: Vegas itself. There really is no other place like it. The Strip is a superficial Mecca for pleasure seekers of all kinds — a strange blend of glassy-eyed gamblers, wide-eyed foreigners, stressed out parents with toddlers in tow, and upper middle class vacationers with maxed-out credit cards. In contrast to the strip’s massive casinos and cacophony of lights/sounds/people, the neighborhood surrounding the YWAM base on F Street was barren and silent. Blocks of flat-roofed beige buildings on dirt lots bordered by rusted metal fences. Dust-coated people sleeping in alleys or camped out under highway bridges. Abandoned cars. Glass-ridden playgrounds void of children. I felt like our group was part of some bizarre social experiment, traipsing through the world’s largest H&M and dining at the Bellagio buffet one day, then eating day-old pastries and rice & beans at the Vegas Rescue Mission the next. We criss-crossed these two worlds all week, retreating to our bullet-proofed, gated base at night. I found myself wondering where my daily life fell on this continuum and wrestling with the discomfort of that question.
Discomfort #2: Heat. One of the first things I did after learning of our Vegas destination was Google the average summer temperature, so I went in prepared for it to hit a hundred degrees, or maybe a little more. But since everyone knows Vegas has a “dry heat” rather than the dripping humidity typical of summers in my home state of Ohio, I figured it couldn’t be that bad…right? Our first night there, the YWAMers took us to the top of a mountain for worship overlooking the city. It was 10 o’clock at night, and it was still 104 degrees. The steady wind felt like a full-body blowdryer set on “high,” and we squinted to keep it from blowing dust into our eyes. By Tuesday (the day that, of course, we were outside for more hours than any other day) it was 117 in the shade, and locals were complaining that it was the hottest day in five or ten years. That was the day we had a dance party with 50 or so kids on the unshaded playground of a local housing project and fed them spaghetti for lunch. (Yes — spaghetti. The perfect food for a blistering summer day.) Fortunately we were drinking gallons of water, and no one went to the hospital. But that night, while we cooled off in front of air conditioners back at the base and slurped tepid water from our Camelbacks, I thought of the very pregnant homeless woman I’d prayed with in the park that morning and wondered how she was staying hydrated and where she was sleeping that night in the miserable heat.
Discomfort #3: Social awkwardness. YWAMers, I soon discovered, are quite comfortable with social awkwardness. They can rapid-fire unfunny jokes and go unphased by the groans of teenage listeners. They laugh loudly and often and at everything. And they will talk to anyone on the street about Jesus, even if it brings on public ridicule. After giving us a crash course in street evangelism, the YWAMers loaded us 17-deep in their 15-passenger, poorly air conditioned vans and dumped us in the parking lot of a nearby outdoor mall, where in pairs we gave belief surveys to unsuspecting shoppers until security politely but firmly asked us to stop. The next day, we did “free prayer” on Fremont Street in the older section of Vegas, approaching street vendors, tourists, and others passers by, asking if we could pray for them. (Surprisingly, about half of them let us.) There we managed to draw the attention of a very angry and slightly crazy religious zealot who harassed us off and on for more than an hour and told us we were representing Satan. The next day, we did similar stuff at an enclosed mall, which was by far the worst place to approach people. My teammate and I got lots of rejections but did have an interesting conversation with an Orthodox Jew; however, our only actual prayer was with an elderly black woman sitting on a bench who turned out to be sleeping behind her dark glasses. That same evening, we did “cross walk” on the strip; this involved two of us carrying a giant wooden cross back and forth between the Harley Davidson Cafe and the MGM while the rest trailed behind looking for people to talk with and pray for. (Believe me, there is something really disturbing about seeing people mock or even run from the cross.) Finally, the grand finale of social awkwardness — our team led a worship service on the Strip in front of Bally’s. With less than 30 minutes of prep, we prayed, sang, shared testimonies, and preached — sandwiched in between an amazingly talented hip-hop dance troupe and a professional grade Motown performer. (I found myself interpreting what was happening for some Norwegian tourists, and also had a great conversation with a slightly high homeless woman who thought the blond girl in our skit was Jesus’ girlfriend.) Although every single one of those experiences challenged us (and I would probably never try any of them at home), I realized by the end of the week that we had all been forced to get over ourselves and our fear of what others think of us. Instead of dwelling on our own insecurities, we started hearing people’s stories and having positive conversations about faith. It was still awkward… but we were okay with it. And by comparison it was a piece of cake to initiate conversation with the man sitting beside me on the flight home.
Discomfort #4: Humility. I met so many different people that week whose spiritual strength made my faith look flimsy. There were the Foster Connect people who talked to us about their ministry of supporting foster families (for more on that, see my next post — People Who Have Wrecked My Life, Part 2) and who sacrificed personal time and comfort for the sake of kids with no place to go. There were the YWAM staffers: Sara, who grew up Muslim until her father died, who led a Bible study for 50 teenagers in her basement (while a teenager herself), and who was struggling to help her family get back on their feet after they lost everything due to her mother’s illness. Kenny, the bearded biker and spoken-word artist who shared his life with us through poetry. Lauren, who as a teenager was the go-to prayer warrior in her school and who challenged our kids to do likewise. There were the often nameless folks at the rescue mission who so willingly came forward to let teenagers pray for their deepest needs: “That I could stop drinking.” “That my son will stop having seizures.” “That we can become citizens.” “That my baby will be okay.” There were the “Burners” (as we dubbed them) — a group of teens and 20-somethings who stayed at the YWAM base with us doing street ministry in Vegas as part of their summer-long journey across the Southwest. These people and others helped me realize how superficial my spirituality can be, and how little I’ve sacrificed.
Discomfort #5: True freedom. Our last night in Vegas, the YWAMers held a “commitment service” for the kids, and the Burners joined in the worship time. About a hundred of us crammed into the YWAM base common room where we prayed and sang, and sang and prayed, and prayed some more. I don’t know what it was — the uninhibited way the worship leaders played their music, the Burners praying passionately in a half circle behind us, the kids sprawled all over the floor… or if it’s just that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas — but I have never felt such freedom in worship. A few songs in, even jaded, middle-aged chaperones (like me) were jumping up and down, waving our arms over our heads, singing loudly, “We were made for – we were made for – we were made for love….” We didn’t care who was watching. We were celebrating an amazing week of seeing God do incredible, uncomfortable things through us. And it just felt right to worship Him with everything we had. So I danced, and I sang, and I prayed for kids in ways I never had. And I found myself wondering why worship in church was never like this, and wishing I could stay in that moment for a very long time. Because I felt free. And if that was what freedom felt like… then what was holding us back the rest of the time?
But perhaps the most uncomfortable experience of all was returning home, and easing right back into my life like I would a well worn pair of slippers. Realizing that, just six weeks after one of the most powerful weeks of my life, I had started to forget the lessons I learned and retreat back into my old comfort zone. (We’ve all done this, haven’t we?)
So my prayer today is that when God expands our comfort zone, we don’t let it shrink back to its former size. That we learn, and we keep learning, and we put into action the stuff that we learn.
And that we stay uncomfortable.