Recently I had the amazing opportunity to serve alongside some junior high and high school students from our church. The group I was with visited a low-income apartment complex in a neighboring city. We spent a weekend playing with over a hundred little kids, flying kites, squirting each other with water toys, coloring, and telling them every opportunity we got that Jesus loves them and wants to be forever friends with them.
We also took part in a service project for this community. Our group repaired and painted their very neglected playground, right in the middle of the complex. Here’s what the playground looked like beforehand:
There were no children playing out here, and the whole area throbbed like an open wound. Did anyone care that this tiny apartment complex, tucked off the main streets, was here? Did anyone care that there were children here who saw this playground everyday like a neon sign screaming: you don’t matter… you’re not even worth fixing playground equipment for.
So our group of about 40 people set out to show them just that: we care, and we’re going to do something about it. I was so proud of our teens as they worked in the blazing sun, painting the equipment in vivid, happy colors. They accomplished way more than we had anticipated on the first day, and we headed home that night with spirits high!
We arrived the next day, excited to put the finishing touches on the playground. As we got off the bus, murmurs began rippling back from the front of the group. I made my way forward and saw a shocking scene. Nearly all of the paint we had applied the day before had been peeled off during the night.
In talking to some of the parents in the apartment complex, we learned that some of the kids had found some sandpaper after we left and had begun rubbing the painted poles. The paint had not yet set, so it began peeling off. This soon became a game to some of the older kids, and before long they were ripping the beautiful project to shreds. The paint shrapnel lay scattered across the sand. I looked at the faces of our youth: it was as though we had all been punched in the gut.
In the first few moments, many things raced through my head: How could they do this? Didn’t they care about all the hard work we did for them? What in the world are we going to do now? Should we even try to do this again, or should we just give up now?
But a group of young men stepped forward and said, “We will fix this.” Then they began to work with a vigor and determination I’ve never even seen in adults. They worked tirelessly, and without stopping for three whole hours. They stripped the metal again and then painted it in record time. As the paint dried, some of our high school girls followed behind and added many artistic touches to the playground:
We also had a group of junior high girls who brought cups of lemonade to the tireless painters, helping them to continue working in the scorching heat. At the end of the day, they had finished the entire playground in record time!
On the bus ride home, I reflected on everything that had happened over the last few days. I was so proud of our youth, but there was still the lingering frustration with the kids who had destroyed the first days work. The ones we had reached out to had destroyed our gift of love for them. What was the motivation to do that?
Slowly it began to dawn on me that this is how many people (myself included, at times) respond to God’s gift of love through his Son, Jesus Christ. The sacrifice Jesus made by dying on the cross, bearing the punishment of your and my sins, is the ultimate gift of love. And he extends that gift freely to any and every person.
But sadly many of us reject and try to detract from that beautiful gift of love:
I’ve done too much; there’s no way God would ever want me.
It just seems too simple. Surely there must be more I have to do to earn this gift.
I don’t believe there even is a God, much less one who loves me.
Then, too, there are those of us who have accepted the initial gift of salvation, but we forget that Jesus’ gift of love is just as powerful and vital to our everyday life after that moment of salvation as it was the first time we believed. We forget that we are to continue “working out our salvation.” Instead of daily looking back to Jesus, the author and finisher of our salvation, we take the reins back into our own hands. “Thanks for saving me from hell, Jesus, but I think I’ve got it from here.” In doing so, we tear apart with our own hands the beautiful gift God has given us. We reject the new life we have been given in Him.
In other words, God has painted this beautiful picture for us of what life could be like if we accept his gift of salvation and continue accepting the new life that salvation has to offer. We then have a choice. We can either pick up the sandpaper and destroy that gift of love (in our actions, in our thoughts, with our words, and what we choose to accept as truth) OR we can walk onto this beautiful playground of our new life in Christ and play our hearts out the way He meant for us to live. Which one will you choose today?