I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to travel to many places with many students. Whether hiking in Northern Thailand, swimming at Waikiki Beach, engaging in a model UN at the University of Southern Denmark, digging foundation holes in Cambodia, or ringing in the new year at the Taj Mahal, two things have always been true: teenagers are amazing humans, and God is already there.
The students I’ve shared these life experiences with have come from a wide range of faith, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. And, not surprisingly, God has been present in all of our adventures. These “God Encounters”, as I’ve come to remember them, have continued to grow my own faith, while also asking the question, “What else is God doing in the lives of my students?” Here are the stories of three God Encounters that have stayed with me:
God Encounter #1
Sitting on the floor in an airport waiting out a layover, one of the students on my trip asked, “Do you have anything to read?” My reply was simple, “Not really. Just my travel Bible.” She shrugged and turned away. Not a minute later, I heard, “I’m really bored. I’ll read your Bible.” As a young person who was unfamiliar with any of the Word, I handed her the Bible and opened it to Psalm 139. She read it, closed it, and handed it back.
A few days later, on a train in Denmark, she asked if she could read the same Psalm again. I took out the Bible, opened it up and handed it to her. She read it, closed it, and handed it back.
Once more, on the plane ride home, she asked for the Psalm. She read it, closed it, and handed it back.
Later, when we had been home for a while and back to our usual school routine, she stayed behind at the end of class. She said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about what I read in your Bible. I’m glad I read it. I wish I’d read it sooner.” She didn’t elaborate or share anything else. But seeds were planted. They were sprouting, even. Without planning and in the normal of our every day, we had encountered God together.
God Encounter #2
On a cold day in December in Agra, India, my students and I ventured into the street from our hostel to explore. There was a heaviness in the air and the kids stuck close by. We ventured into shops, wandered through a flower market and found a small restaurant for lunch.
Upon leaving the restaurant, the temperature had dropped some more. It was cold and we felt unprepared. Across the cobblestone street was a group of men huddled in squats around a fire built right on the street. “Oh man, I wish we had a fire right now,” one of my students sighed (maybe not realizing the irony of the statement). I replied, “They might be willing to share.” My students looked at me like I was a little bit out of my mind. Was I suggesting that we approached a group of people we didn’t know and who were clearly struggling to share a warm fire? I was.
Leading by example, I walked up to the group and greeted them. They smiled and invited me into their circle. One at a time, my students joined me. We didn’t speak the same languages, but there was laughter and smiles, and warmth around the fire. When we eventually stepped away, one student offered, “You’re so brave, Miss.” I said, “We have to have courage to love all people and live in community.” We walked the rest of the way back to the hostel in silence.
In that circle around the tiny fire, we had encountered God.
God Encounter #3
Have you ever had one of those late night chats with a really great friend that goes on for hours before you both realize how late it is. But, despite your tiredness, you just want the conversation to keep going? Now, picture that conversation with 13 teenagers, while sleeping in a shared space on a bamboo floor, under a mosquito net in the heat of Cambodia in December. When teenagers are out of their element, they think out of their element, they share out of their element. God walked us right into this encounter with each other and it is one of my favourite God Encounters! The laughter that came out of this conversation was intense. So was the learning–of each other, of life and of God’s ever-present ability to engage people with love and care. There was no scripture, there was no faith talk, there were no deep theological questions. But, there was God, maneuvering through our group and building a relationship that would be necessary for future conversations both within and beyond this setting.
I understand that these circumstances are out of the typical classroom experience. However, when the travelling is done and we’re back in the classroom, God is waiting. When learning gets messy and plans don’t go as we hoped, God is already there, waiting to plant seeds and nurture growth. When we don’t see our students learning the way we hope, God is there teaching what God hopes. We don’t have to bring God anywhere. God is already there. And, we can draw attention to God’s presence but, even more, we can engage our students in God’s presence.
When five years down the line you receive a call from a student you travelled with, now an adult navigating life, and their words to you are, “Can you pray with me?” you’ll know God was with that student and with you their teacher, all the way.