Friday, October 17, 2008

October Musings II: "It's like Thursday night at a youth camp."

“It’s like Thursday night at a youth camp.”

For anyone who has ever worked with teenagers – specifically junior and/or high school aged students; in this case, within the structure of a church setting – or anyone who has ever as a teenager attended a summer church camp…you might understand this sentence. If you’ve never worked with, been in this setting, or (like many of my friends) if you may have advanced to the biological age where your own junior of high school hi-jinks are somewhat hazy…allow me to be your guide on your journey with the Way-Back Machine.

First things first, on the backstory of where and why I first thought the above-quoted-sentence: as some of you may know (either through
reading about it or through first-hand experience), for a little over a year now, Ashley and I have hosted a small group/life group/Bible study/thingie called “That Thing @ 8” in our apartment here at UM. Although we do meet weekly during the semester when school is in session, one of the student leaders within the group decided (or, if you prefer, “felt led”) that we should host one night not in our apartment, but just sitting outside, under the stars, and sing. Have a night of singing worship songs. Openly. Unashamedly. And lest we take the human aspect of organizing the night TOO seriously, we decided to call it “That Thing @ Lake,” since we were just going to sit on the banks of the lake on campus and sing.

God blesses me with the presence of Jesus Nerds in my life.

Anyway, the agreed-upon Friday night arrived, and we had two guys with guitars who joined us in sitting out under the smile of God for this time of intimacy. We settled in, sat on the grass (no, unlike almost everyone else, I did not bring a blanket to sit on; I wanted, for me, for this to be as authentic and communal with nature as possible), and began singing. It was a bit of a rough start at first, but soon the music washed over us and – as is apropos for the Spirit to lead some to do – people unaffiliated with our initial group of troubadours began to migrate over. To listen. To ask us questions. All the while, the music and the stories we shared served as a background to life happening around us.

Now, I can honestly and sincerely state with no hesitation that I never considered this night to be any form of witnessing, and I most assuredly did not think about this as a – God forgive me for using this term – “marketing tool” for our little band of miscreants. That people might genuinely be intrigued about us and express an interest in coming one Sunday night to this exploratory group of spiritual seekers, since we don’t really fit any kinda established mold for any affiliated organization, never entered my mind as a reason we were doing this. It was, ultimately, for somewhat “selfish” reasons (we were doing it for us) that God took and turned on its head. We were, thankfully, being unhaughtily selfish, and not seeking our own glory or working in any way to draw attention to us. I believe that this simple idea was honored and turned into something better than what we conceived of it to be.

That was Lesson #1:
Don’t Undersell God. We’re talking about Someone who kinda created all of existence, so I imagine using one night of singing is not outside of His scope of usability.

Now. Why did this night feel, in some ways, like what a Thursday night of a youth camp might parallel?

Typically what happens (and it’s somewhere between comedic and saddening that you can actually plot this out as a template that happens across the country) at these camps is as follows: an assortment of teenagers leaves their home church (or a designated departure site) amid the tears of their biological family at some time on a Sunday afternoon, boarding a church bus or traveling in a fleet of cars to drive to a set destination. After they arrive at this location, there is some kind of goofy opening/welcoming night at the camp that sets the tone for the full week, letting everyone know what the “camp theme” might be, as well as giving them an opportunity to meet/hear from the various speakers for the week. The next four days are something of a blur, spent in small groups during the daylight hours, where all the kids from one church are dispersed into smaller groups (most often with some team motif, designed to inspire cohesion among the individuals within the smaller groups) mixed with all the other students from various geographical regions and other churches. At night, all the students congregate together as a whole, sitting in the groups they arrived in and not the ones they have been broken into, to listen to a speaker address the whole camp, before they collectively spend some time in the group they arrived in and then going back to the barracks/dorms to get hopped up on candy and then completely and utterly ignore ay attempt at a curfew, much to the chagrin and sleep deprivation of the chaperones (who may, in fact, act as bad of not worse than some of the students…or so I’ve heard).

There are traditionally three events that can be marked during this week: (1) the fact that the chaperones [raises hand] will invariably have to go and wake up/find when they skip events/ride herd on the students who are “too cool” for the events of the week, traditionally the students whose parents/guardians forced them to attend in the hope that it would do them some “good;” (2) there will be some kind of crazy outdoor activity held on Thursday afternoon designed to burn off steam as well as to just have some fun. During this time, after the students have spent a good solid four days coming together as a squad, the chaperones [raises hand again] will find themselves the brunt of a water fight/food fight/literal mud slinging or the “victim” of some good-natured prank perpetuated by the students they brought; and (3) the final, tear-filled, Thursday night large-group service, which is ripe with commitments made, rededications spoken, and a plethora of promises to live a better life once they come down from the mountain – be it a literal or metaphorical mountain.

Now, I have been fortunate (so to speak) to see the two sides of the coin of leadership in play at these camps, both from the perspective of a participant (student) and as a leader: the youth leader who respects and rejoices in the aforementioned life changes, and the youth leader who takes a more cynical view, stating (thankfully, not always TO the students) or acting as if they're thinking “We’ll wait and see if this change sticks once camp is done.” Both of these have, to an extent, affected my OWN views, and – as I am coming to realize – potentially have stagnated my growth. And mercifully, God has used them both to teach me, both about how to show grace to myself and to others.  

Looking back to That Thing @ Lake – it was evident, both in retrospect and at the time of the event, that God was there. That there was an almost-tangible feeling of the Spirit moving, seen in the look of peace on the faces of the people singing and listening. Some of the smiles shown could not have been more beautiful. Some of the melodies could not have been more harmonious. And the students there singing were doing so almost oblivious of their surroundings, almost oblivious of the fact that roughly 30 feet or so behind us, people were getting ready to go out clubbing for the night by getting their fill of social lubricants at the campus pub and many would n-e-v-e-r think of doing something so…”spiritual” on a night when they could instead go and
par-tay.

And I thought back to the many, many mountaintop experiences I have had as both as a participant and as a guide (leader). And I remembered the – sorry for the God-slang – “spiritual high” that you can feel on those nights, both in yourself and in the others that you guide and mentor. And I thought about the peace that I felt at that moment sitting by the lake, a peace that I knew was God talking to me about what kind of an example, what kind of a leader I was being to these kids, and to others.

See – I believe that one of the problems with “mountaintop moments” (or “lakeside life-changes,” to keep the alliteration going) is that we can both oversell AND undersell them. It’s easy to take either road: we can discount the sincere, intense, and heart-rending moments on the mountain when they don’t happen to us (and I’m looking at YOU, leaders) because we’ve seen the ones who DO fall – either by the wayside or totally off the cliff – post-mountain, and we’ve become jaded by what we may THINK are half-sincere promises; or, we can – in ignorance – think that “that” moment, the divine instant of a heart becoming open, can and should be enough for some, and we just let it go.

Maybe it’s about both. Maybe we should not be so quick to attempt to intellectualize or just discount the “high” as something brought about by group-think. Maybe we should weigh in to the discussion in the life that has been altered, however big or however small, by reveling in the peace, the beauty, the grace, the redemption of the soul that has just been changed (or at the very least, impacted) by the mountain. 

Maybe we need to celebrate it instead of putting it to a litmus test (as was my cynical thought at the lake to think “Would anyone here, myself included, be doing this exact thing while just sitting outside of a coffee house on any given Thursday if they weren’t surrounded by a veritable cloud of witnesses?”). Maybe we need to demark the moments of these victories just as that – as times when there was a victory, when it is something we can look back to (and not throw in the face of) someone when they DO fall or trip.

And maybe we (collectively) need to better educate the mountain-highers that not every moment in life WILL be or feel this easy, this pure, this close and that we need to remember what this, the high, DOES feel like so when the dark times come (and come they will), that we will have something to draw COMFORT from, and we will not instead try and CONFORM the circumstances or internal mechanisms of our life to mimic the same high we had. That moment is gone, but the memory and the strength we felt at the time can be drawn from, and can be used to draw us closer to God. Kinda like that whole “in our weaknesses” thing that a certain Book speaks to.

Every mountain, every road has mile-markers. They’re there to show you how far you’ve come, as well as far you have yet to go. And in some cases, to show how far you may have to climb back up. No matter in what circumstance they’re being used, they’re being used as a tool to help, not to hinder.

What we did in the dark that Friday night, by the shimmer of the lake and the under the moonlight, did indeed cast forth something into the Light. It cast my mind out of a rut of cynicism. It made me look, and smile, at the assembled lives around me. It helped to inspire me to be more transparent, more real, more acknowledging of my own mile markers, and to not be the cynic that I know I can be.

Just as a caveat:  a number of people WAY more educated than I have written (or spoken) at length about mountains, valleys, hills, faith…and I don’t want to reiterate what they have said. I'm not
that articulate or good of a writer, anyway.  I can only speak to the allegory of what God showed me that night by the water. And to how a follow-up conversation with my beautiful wife has reminded me of it. I owe you, Ash.  This is one conversation destined for a late-night pot of coffee.  For me. Not you. You're pregnant.  


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