In the middle of June, Nicole, our two youth ministers, and 7 other youngsters made their way to Jacksonville for Just 5 Days – a service-based mission trip in which the youths are challenged to step outside their comfort zone, and evangelize through action. “The kids are all on summer vacation from school, but these trips are by no means vacation,” shares Chris Biel. “They really do a lot of work, and most of them are way outside their element, so they get exposure to communities that are much unlike their own.”

“The entire week we simply helped out the church. We gardened. We made sandwiches for the summer camp, and we would worship with the kids that came during the week,” Nicole shares.

We collectively recognize that kids of this age aren’t going to take the initiative, wake up on Saturday mornings early, and perform the corporeal works of mercy – unprovoked. So when we take a group of kids on a mission trip, we’re more or less teaching them to give. We live in a culture that breeds selfishness. Social psychologists believe that much of the anger and defiant behavior in children is a byproduct not of traumatic events in the family, or undeserved hurts or abuse within the home, but of the sense of entitlement we associate with profound selfishness. Children believe they should get to do what they want, and when they can’t, they react with anger (often exaggerated amounts of it, too). It starts in childhood, but it often carries over into adulthood.

This concept has become so glaringly epidemic throughout our world that Pope Francis gave this statement in none other than one of the poorest, most violent favelas in Rio de Janeiro. “Everybody, according to his or her particular opportunities and responsibilities, should be able to make a personal contribution to putting an end to so many social injustices. The culture of selfishness and individualism that often prevails in our society is not what builds up and leads to a more habitable world.” He didn’t address a gathering of Hollywood socialites. He said this in a slum where people live hand to mouth.

So what did our kids do in Jacksonville? In short, they volunteered at a Church summer camp in a marginalized neighborhood. When you interview someone young, like Nicole, you try to keep the questions light. ‘What did you learn?’ ‘Did you meet any new people?’ ‘What were some of the fun activities you engaged in?’ But the interview became dark at a fast clip when Nicole began sharing some of her observations about the parents who dropped off their kids.

“It was sort of sad watching some of the parents come back to pick their kids up. They would be screaming at them, and just totally impatient. They would party all day and show up late to pick them up. Their eyes would be all messed up and they’d be slurring their words. It was obvious that they were high or had been drinking,” Nicole remembers. “You could tell they just didn’t really care about much about their children.”
Wow. It was more than a little uncomfortable listening to Nicole share these observations (and I’m well-versed in discomfort), and not because I’m unwilling to look at reality. I think it was uncomfortable because I’m not (and most people aren’t) used to hearing unfiltered observation that cuts right to the core of a matter. We’re taught not to judge, or jump to conclusions, but for Nicole, this may have been her first encounter with the realities of substance abuse and its negative impact on parenting.

Let’s just say her 11-year old observations were right. Let’s say that those parents dropped their kids off, partied all day, and genuinely didn’t give their children a second thought. We could call this extraordinarily selfish behavior, and they are modeling this behavior to their children. “In a way it made us stronger in our faith because it made us look at what we have and be more grateful for it. I also pray for those kids in Jacksonville that they’ll have a better life one day,” Nicole answers.

This is how children learn much of their own behavior… and this can be a terrifying element of the direction we’re moving as a culture. And yet there is an antidote to it all. One of my (over-worked & underappreciated) spiritual advisors told me the cure to pretty much any selfishness-driven malady, is service to others.

The process of addressing selfishness in children can be challenging. According to a 2011 Duke University study, the major reasons parents are unable to correct selfishness in their children is that they; are self-indulgent themselves and are unwilling to address this weakness in their own personalities; want their children to be their friend; lack of a role model for correction; lack of confidence; fear conflicts as a result of childhood stresses caused by an angry parent; have an obsession with sports; lack of courage; fear of the anger in a child; have difficulties with trusting; are proud; or have a weak interior/spiritual life.

Ouch! I’m glad I’m not a parent and can’t be blamed for any of this (wink, wink). But seriously, these mission trips serve more than the people on the receiving end. What we’re doing when we send our youth group on a mission trip, is giving them an opportunity to give. So much of their lives, their media, and their observations of adult behavior focus on getting – not just in the material sense. We’re getting better in math, getting better at throwing a football, and generally, getting better at getting better. We’re being trained to focus inward, and the more this attitude permeates our culture, the higher the rates of depression, substance abuse, and narcissism climb. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but when Nicole was given the opportunity to share her time and talent with those in need, she learned about both the drawbacks of selfishness, and the benefits of giving. We’re all sort of afraid to “over-give” because we live in a world of scarcity, but like the perplexities that lie within each of the Beatitudes, Spirituality often runs counter to our (lower) human nature.

A life built upon qualities like compassion, kindness and peace is far superior than one based on fear, anxiety, stress, feeling unworthy, and so forth. And yet, faced with the obvious benefits of spirituality, we seem to be passionately driven to shoot ourselves in the foot. The drive for these negative behaviors seems to come from so deep inside that you hardly understand why you are feeling/acting in such a way. I think the lesson Nicole’s experience teaches us, is that when we give of our time and talents, God is going to reveal more to us than what we expect to get back – even the spiritual dividends we expect will fall short of the totality of God’s gift. We must force ourselves to give – until it comes naturally… and begins to make sense.

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