*This is longer than my usual posts but it’s an article I’m working on for a magazine post. Enjoy seeing the rough draft here first!*
“Joshua, meet Miss Melissa, she’s visiting with us this weekend because she loves kids and might want to work with kids at our church.”
I offered a friendly handshake to the short, somewhat roly poly 9 year old who was sizing me up with eyes that seemed a bit too serious and wise for his years.
“Nice to meet you Miss Melissa, you’re sitting in the back of the car with me and I have a lot of questions for you.”
It was 2003 and I was a brand new college graduate. Having already done a 6 month internship and having the life-time label of “pastor’s kid” I was by no means new to ministry or new to the candidating for a church position. I was, however, new to doing it solo. Fresh from Minnesota I suddenly found myself in the heart of Florida applying for the job of Minister to Children at an up and coming church. After an internship in Florida I wasn’t exactly new to Florida but I was still trying to process why anyone would chose to live inland Florida and not on the beach. I was also still trying to wrap my mind around the idea that I was about to go on a “river float” with the entire church.
I smiled at Joshua and said with much more bravado then I was feeling, “ask away!”. We piled in the back of the Pastor’s car and Joshua began to grill me. It suddenly occurred to me that whether it was planned or not I was definitely being evaluated on my ability to interact with this 9 year old tag along and the Pastor’s 2-year-old son. Being an “I am who I am” type of person I easily conversed with Josh and played peekaboo with the 2-year-old. An hour later as we arrived at the river I had won over both kids. Josh had gone from asking me questions to talking and let me tell you, the kid could talk. He latched on to me and told me (and anyone else who would listen) “Miss Melissa is my floating buddy!”.
What happens on the river should probably stay on the river but for the purposes of my audience I’ll share a little. It was a slow moving river and our guide very clearly told us not to go under trees because snakes or poisonous spiders could fall on us, not to go to the shore because of gators, and to not fall off because…well you’d have to go to shore to get back on. I was absolutely terrified and completely out of my element. I was in my swimming suit meeting prominent church members with a 9 year old boy that wouldn’t detach from me and I was convinced I would die in central Florida from a gator attack.
Joshua faced the river like any 9 year old boy. He bounced along on his tube like he was born on it. He continued to talk until my ears couldn’t handle anymore. He was both adorable and absolutely obnoxious.
And then he fell in.
I saw it happen. In fact, I had just been telling him to be a little more careful when suddenly over he went. He bobbed right back up and the river was so shallow I think he could actually stand. The river was barely moving and other than him yelling “Miss Melissa, HELP!” he seemed fine to me. I made the decision any intelligent person interviewing for a job to work with kids would make, I left him. I called out a sturdy “you’ll be fine”, saw people were right behind him, and I kept on floating. I couldn’t do it, I could not bring myself to dive into the waters of death for him.
Not 15 seconds after he fell in someone else came along and hauled him back onto his tube. He was fine and he quickly paddled to catch up with me. He went right back to talking my ear off. He, however, did not forget. The kid had a great sense of humor and the moment we got back in the pastor’s car he looked at me with a glint in his eye and announced, “Miss Melissa left me to drown in the river.”
And that’s where it all began. I got the job at the church and more importantly I formed an unbreakable bond with a short, talkative, feisty kid named Josh.
For a number of reasons I was only at that church 15 months. In those 15 months Josh was my biggest fan, my biggest helper, and the kid I often hid from so my ears could have a break. When families evacuated to the church during 3 hurricanes Josh and his family came and Josh was my shadow, when I launched my first mid-week kids’ program Josh was the first to sign up, when I got a new haircut Josh was the first to tell me “it’s not so good Miss Melissa”. His dad was my mechanic, and his mom helped me run our 4th-6th grade youth group.
Joshua ran deeper spiritually than most kids do at his age. We had a number of significant and deep conversations about life and God. After I had been there a year Josh decided to be baptized and in his mind of course Miss Melissa would be the one to do it. It was my honor to have the very first person I ever baptized be him. Of course me made plenty of jokes about me possibly trying to drown him again.
When the time came for me to move on Josh took it harder than anyone. He was heart broken and he was angry. More significant conversations about life, God’s timing, and the brokenness of our world took place. For weeks he called me every single day to check on me. And for years he called me regularly to fill me in, talk deep stuff, ask me to pray, ask how he could pray for me etc.
Josh was 12 when I decided I would be at his wedding. There was no doubt in my mind I would be in his life for a long time and I was committed to it. Some years he called every month, some years it was just a couple times. Every time we talked for at least a couple of hours. I was mentor, pastor, and friend.
After arguing when he was 15 about the running he was doing from the call to ministry God had placed on his life I cried tears of joy when he called me at 17 to tell me he wanted to be a pastor. When he turned down an opportunity at age 18 to assist me at camp to lead worship for another camp my heart overflowed. And when he called me over a year ago to tell me about a special girl named Kari I flew myself back to Florida to meet the girl that had stolen his heart. And then she stole my heart and I thanked God.
In November of 2013 I flew to Florida specifically for the wedding of “my” Josh. It’s funny how my family and friends know him as “my Josh”. He’s been that significant through the years that he’s part of my story. And to my absolute wonder and awe I am part of his story.
I walked into the wedding and Josh immediately found me and hugged me. “Miss Melissa, I want you to go sit by my parents in the front row.” I hugged him back and said a very quick “no”. I informed him I’d be sitting in the back. He pulled out his firm serious voice and told me not to argue with him. I was escorted to the very front row of the wedding and there I sat next to his parents. I’ll admit, I was mortified and was extremely uncomfortable. I apologized to them. His Wisconsinite dad looked at me and said, “you’re good people, you sit here” and his Dominican Republic mama grabbed my hand and said, “no baby, you should be up here, you are his spiritual mommy.” His grandparents, sitting behind me, just smiled at me and nodded.
Maybe that’s when tears started filling my eyes. More likely they had started 3 weeks before when he called me and asked me to give a speech at the reception. Or maybe it was when my Josh walked down the aisle stood right in front of me and gave me the biggest smile and a tiny wave. Or maybe it was when I watched Josh tear up as his bride walked down the aisle. Or maybe it was when he put his arm around his wife and prayed over her. Or maybe it was when his mama and I spontaneously turned to each other during the ceremony and smiled at each other with tears in our eyes. Whenever it started doesn’t really matter, all I know is it was a holy moment. It was one of those moments those of us in ministry, especially kid’s ministry, rarely see. Ten years of love, tears, advice, prayer, agony, fear, release, mentoring, and more had accumulated to this holy moment. A moment where God was so clearly present that if I could have dropped to my knees without causing a scene I would have. It was breathtaking.
Ministry always demands of us to have what I like to call a Hebrews 11 type of faith. In Hebrews 11:13 it says that all the great men and women of faith died believing what they had been promised. They didn’t see it in their lifetime but they died believing. Ministry is walking forward in obedience and in faith. We rarely see the footprints we’re leaving, the legacy that will define us, or the impact we’re having. And that’s okay. I was simply given a glimpse, a snapshot, a gift. I have never been more aware of my insignificance and God’s significance as I was on that day. As Josh introduced me to everyone as his children’s pastor who baptized him and the person who taught him the most about Jesus and as his mom introduced me to everyone as “Joshua’s spiritual mama” it was not my fingerprints I saw on him, they were the fingerprints of my Jesus. Exactly as it should be for followers of Jesus. May our footprints be His, may our legacy point to Him, and may our impact be only through Him.
My prayer for the last few years as I have traveled speaking to kids and adults has been simple, “may they forget me, and remember you Jesus”.
Never underestimate how God is going to use in a child’s life. Ministry doesn’t stop at a certain age or when you leave a position or place or when you don’t feel like it anymore, it’s Christ at work in you and through you. Surrender, walk forward in obedience, and may you have a Hebrews 11 kind of faith. Oh and don’t worry if you almost drown a kid, God works best in our weaknesses ;).
Speech video. Audio is great, visual not so great