Off We Go!

It’s a chilly but sun filled morning here at Outdoor Mission Camp. The rest of the SHERPAs are clumsily making their way down the stairs one at a time as they soak in some of the last minutes in a real bed. Luggage bags are scattered throughout the cabin and every whiteboard is filled with schedules and travel plans. It is July 29th, and tomorrow morning at 4:00 A.M. we are loading up in our vans, driving to the Atlanta Airport, and flying out to Haiti. Our time here this summer is coming to a close, and our trip to Haiti might be seen as the grand finale. It is hard to believe that I have already spent ten weeks in this place, and I still haven’t fully comprehended the reality of going home.

This past week I got the chance to lead a group in our last Wilderness 101 camp. My group was actually more of a family. Well, no, it literally was a family. It was a grandpa, his 16 year old son, and his 14 and 16 year old grandkids. Then of course there was myself and another fellow SHERPA, honorary family members for the week. They really treated us like such. As we went through three days of backpacking, some of which was done in a torrential downpour, I really started to feel like a part of their family. They trusted us to guide them safely through the wilderness. They were open and vulnerable with us and were quick to tell us their stories. They were exceedingly gracious with us in spite of our mistakes, and they happily scarfed down meals that didn’t exactly go according to plan. More than anything, they allowed us to love them. The tough and guarded exterior of the grandkids broke down pretty quickly around Day 2 and their complaints about being here were replaced with jokes and laughter. So much laughter.

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Sunset from Mt. Sterling, our Day 1 campsite.

At the end of the week, we like to have a time of reflection on the past week and encouragement. Each of the family members expressed one common sentiment: It was a time for them to finally just have some plain old fun. The past two years had not been easy for any of these guys. Parents split up, kids had gotten kicked out of houses, drugs and alcohol had ravaged lives, bitter step-dads had made life exceedingly difficult, and brothers were even separated. Now, finally, this broken and hurting family, with a hodge podge of ridiculous experiences in the past year, was together once again, reunited in the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, having fun. We got to sit around the campfire and have many fruitful conversations about Christ and the importance of being rooted in Him. We even got to hear one of the grandkids tell us that this was the first time in a long time he was able to have fun without being high. Praise God. I couldn’t have asked for a better week to close out my time as a guide here at Outdoor Mission Camp.

I have never been out of the country before, and I don’t know what to expect out of these next 10 days. Haiti is sure to be yet another adventure to cap off my summer. I know we are going into a hurting and broken area. I know that we will be putting on a VBS for 150-200 children for three days. I know we will be delivering water filters to a couple of households that otherwise don’t have access to clean water. Outside of that, I will just have to take in the rest as it comes. I am confident that my experiences so far this summer have fully prepared me to serve in whatever way I need to. I know that God has had his hand on me this entire summer, even through the process of getting me here, and I know he will continue to do so through the remainder of my trip. One thing I know I have learned this summer is the power of prayer, and we could use plenty of it this week. Prayers for safe travels and smooth logistics. Prayers for open hearts and wisdom to speak truth into the lives of the people we will be ministering to. Prayers for joy and peace in the face of adversity. Prayers that we will be able to bring light into a dark place. I can’t wait to see what this next week holds. Until then, I’m going to go attempt to pack a summers worth of junk into two duffel bags.

The Beauty of Creation

At Outdoor Mission Camp, we talk a lot about the beauty of God’s creation and how we can learn so much about God through his creation. When you see the sun slowly settling down for the night behind a vista of mountain tops, or hear the birds chirping and feel the sun shining on your face early in the morning, or see the layer of fog that hovers above the Nantahala River, it is hard to deny the truth in that.  Some of my most powerful moments with God have been walking down a lonely trail, or silently watching the waves of the ocean crash onto the beach. But until this week I didn’t realize how much I had been overlooking such a huge part of God’s creation and the glory that could be revealed through it: His people.

The past week was an unusual week here at OMC.  We had a group of middle school students from Greensboro Youth for Christ who were staying with us and helping serve at a day camp for kids with special needs, Camp Ability.  Honestly, I wasn’t looking forward to this week at all. It is hard for me to admit this, but I have never really felt comfortable around children with special needs.  I’m not entirely sure why, and I feel incredibly insensitive even saying that.  I guess I just never knew how to act around them.  Do you just treat them like completely normal people?  Do you go out of your way to be overly nice to them or does that just make them feel even less “normal”?  Honestly, another part of me just had trouble grasping the thought that this could be part of God’s plan.  After a week of serving kids with special needs, it’s embarrassing to even say that I had those thoughts.

I spent the week co-leading the 6-8 year old age group at Camp Ability.  We had 5 outstanding little guys as our campers, and 5 incredible middle school girls to serve as their “buddies” for the week. It was tough. Two of our campers were mostly non-verbal, while a couple of them became violent pretty easily, and one of them refused to participate in any kind of group activity.  I feel like I spent most of my week crouched down, negotiating with one of my campers. “First we need to go to arts and crafts, and then we can go play with Legos.” “I know you are hungry and want lunch right now, but first we have to get out of the pool and then go to lunch.” It was certainly a test in patience, but it was also immensely rewarding! I saw kids who didn’t talk at all in the first couple days open up to conversation with their new “buddies”.  I saw pure joy on kids’ faces as they sang silly songs like “Bananas Unite!”  I saw some of the biggest smiles on kids faces as they splashed around in the pool and did epic cannonballs into their buddy’s arms. I saw the lives of middle school students changed as they gave everything of themselves to children who wanted nothing more than to have a friend who loved them. Through it all, I was still plagued by sadness by the fact that these kids were faced with immense challenges in life that they had no control over, and never would.

It wasn’t until Wednesday night, sitting around a campfire, fully immersed in God’s creation, that it all clicked.  We were eating dinner around the campfire with our middle school students from Greensboro and a local church’s worship team was leading us in a few songs.  After singing “How Great is our God,” the worship leader stopped and told us to take a look around, at God’s creation, and just see how great our God truly is.  I glanced around at the trees towering over us and the roaring fire in front of us.  Yep, His creation never gets old.  But as I looked around, I saw something else: The people I was sitting around this campfire with.  I saw the SHERPAs who I have been serving with all summer and have become intimately connected with.  I saw the middle school students we were leading who were perhaps connecting with God for the first time. I thought about the kids at Camp Ability and their giant, jubilant smiles.  All beautiful, wonderful, marvelous. And all part of God’s creation.  We talk so much about seeing God in nature, and how is glory is revealed in the mountains. This is all so true.  But I think sometimes we forget about the fact that we are all part of God’s creation.  We don’t have to look for God’s creation, we ARE God’s creation. And so is every single person around us.  If we truly believe that we are all created in God’s image, and that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, then we have to see the beauty of His people.

I still struggle with the fact that a God who is as sovereign and loving as ours can allow for people to have so many challenges in their life.  But I know he loves us, and I know his creation is infinitely beautiful, and His glory is revealed through his creation, including His people. I’m thankful for a God whose image can be revealed as much in a 6 year old with Down syndrome as a beautiful mountaintop sunset. One thing I have been reminded of this week is something my mom told me about called “people first language.”  Essentially, it is the idea that what a person has does not define them.  So, instead of referencing someone as an autistic child, it would be a child with autism. It’s not a Down syndrome child, it is a child with Down syndrome.  As much as this is just a politically correct and polite thing to say, I think it has some really cool spiritual implications as well, because it is exactly how God sees them.  God does not limit people to the diseases that afflict them, and sees them first and foremost as His children.  In the same way, we began to see these kids as just that: kids.  Kids whom God loves and cares for and desperately wants to be His.  I’m thankful for a week to serve and to love and to see more of God revealed in his creation.  I’m thankful for the beauty I now see in each of His children, no matter what challenges or disabilities they may have. It’s a lesson I hope I don’t soon forget.

An Abundant Life

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  John 10:10

This verse has been a constant theme over the past couple of weeks. It has shown up in a book that I have been working through.  I have heard numerous speakers refer to it. One of my campers brought it up in our group discussion around the campfire. I can’t seem to get away from this idea of not just life, but life abundantly. What does that mean to have life abundantly, and why don’t we experience it more often?

There have been a handful of moments over the past month that have given me a taste of what I think Jesus means when he talks about life and life abundantly.

1) Experiencing meaningful, heartfelt worship in an intimate setting with an incredible group of people.

2) Taking the time to walk by yourself on a trail, hauling a heavy backpack, and thinking of nothing but God’s goodness.

3) Spending my 20th birthday on a backpacking trip with 7 solid, Godly guys who love and care about me.

4) Seeing the joy on an unathletic teenagers face when he accomplishes something he never thought he could.

5) Spending extended periods of time solitude in nature, just listening for the voice of God.

6) Laughing and screaming as we tumble through a rapid, and the breathtaking moment when the shock of the cold water hits your system.

7) Waking up to the cool mountain air and sipping a hot cup of coffee on the back porch of our cabin.

8) Joining my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in heartfelt prayer for immediate needs and things far off in the distance.

9) Spending 6 days in the backcountry with a fellow Sherpa and 4 high school aged guys, knowing that we are responsible for their well being.

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Day 6 on the trail selfie.

 

10) Telling a kid that I wasn’t going to let him come down from the rock because I knew him could make it to the top, and hearing the excitement in his voice as he told others about what he had done.

11) Having natural, casual conversations with fellow Sherpas about what God has been showing them over the past month.

12) Sitting around a campfire with my campers while they made remarkably deep parallels about their experiences in nature and what that has shown them about God.

13) Sleeping in a real bed after 11 days of camping.

14) Reading my Bible outside. Seriously, you have to try it.

15) Spending much needed time with my family and wonderful girlfriend after two weeks with campers.

16) Hearing God’s voice in the stillness of the woods.

This isn’t to say that there haven’t been challenges and roadblocks along the way.  After all, as Christians we have to recognize that the thief is real and he indeed comes to steal and kill and destroy.  He can be divisive among believers.  He can cause people to doubt themselves or find the worst in every situation. He tries to crush every hint of joy inside of us and is threatened when we encroach on having abundant life. Thankfully, we also know that the thief was and is not victorious. I have come to understand that Jesus’ offer to have abundant life is always there, and those moments happen all around us.  The problem is that all too often we let the thief have way too much leeway.  We get discouraged when the rain comes instead of embracing its beauty.  We are annoyed by silence and fill it with noise instead of listening for the voice of God.  We get frustrated by people and choose bitterness instead of Grace. In just about every situation, there is an opportunity to have life, and have it abundantly, and there is an opportunity to allow the thief to steal, kill, and destroy.  If I have learned anything this summer, its to choose life.