HOUGH LIEUTENANT COLONEL MERVIN WILLETT GONIN HEATED HIS HANDS BYmidnight’s crackling fire, the warmth was scarcely enough to counterbalance the horrors of death’s day.
It was 1945. A leader in the British military, Lieutenant Gonin had been charged with liberating Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi concentration camp. When the order was handed down, Gonin reveled in the thought of rescuing those with one foot already in the grave. Yet after a few days his thoughts became nightmares that flashed images branding his mind forever.
Images of corpses piled high, faces indistinguishable. Images of men, women, and children collapsing as they walked—destined for the heap. Awake, these images fatigued him. As he slept, they exhausted him further.
The next day a large shipment of supplies arrived. Despite the need for the basics—food, clothes, and medicine—a large quantity of lipstick was crammed into one of the crates.
Momentarily furious, Gonin’s fuming quickly turned to elation. “We were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don’t know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was . . . sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets . . . but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket . . . , but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm.”*
Each year millions of dollars are spent trying to convince young people that this shirt, song, or style is the difference between being accepted or ostracized. They’re deluged with lies telling them that their identity is what they wear, instead of who they are. The problem is they don’t know who they are, and they often see the church as nothing more than a spiritual concentration camp.
It’s not that our intentions are bad. In fact, we want young people to grow and thrive. They just need to do it in our box, looking and behaving as we think they should to fit our tastes.
When Jesus first encountered the fishermen, He ignored their crudeness and vulgarity. He never told them to change; He simply showed them a better way to live.
As we work to retain and reclaim young adults, Jesus is a pretty good place to start.
Build a spiritual identity grounded in Jesus. By centering our sermons, Sabbath school lessons, and Bible studies on the life of Jesus, we showcase the practical outworking of God’s kingdom in young people’s lives. The foundation for their identity is built upon His love and sacrifice.
Form a social network of believers. The old adage of being Seven-day Adventists rings true: If church is the only time we interact, our community will crumble. If the church doesn’t meet that need, young adults will find a place that does. Start a softball team, host a cookie decorating night, or plan a midweek pizza outing. Connect the church to real life.
Emphasize practical service. Applying the principles and values of the kingdom of God means being actively involved in mission work. Whether locally or internationally focused, our church should be a community that strives to serve. Through this kind of frontline outreach, young adults grow by tangibly being Jesus to the world.
I, too, see images:
I see a young man, hat backwards, stumble out of a bar in a nightly quest to fill the void. Then there’s the pretty blond, surrounded by her church family, yet totally alone in the crimson pew.
One has taken the gloves off; both are searching for an identity.
These images need to exhaust us, fatigue us, and drive us to action. We don’t need a crate of lipstick; we already have the Answer.
*From the diary of Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin, DSO.
A proud Nebraskan, Jimmy Phillips writes from Bakersfield, California, where he is marketing and communication coordinator for San Joaquin Community Hospital.