As I type these words, I’m sitting on the couch in my living room with just enough energy to move my fingers across the keyboard. I’ve spent the last 7 days in Kilmarnock, VA with 50 middle schoolers, 10 high school student leaders, and 10 adult leaders. The 70 of us had set out for our annual adventure to see how many people in that region we could serve, love, and share God’s grace with.
I’d like to share some of my experiences and thoughts on what was most definitely a remarkable week. We promote this week-long experience each year as “the best week you’ll have all summer”, but even that claim was outdone when one of our middle school girls came to me toward the end of the week and said, “Jerry, this is the best week of my life!”
We started the week with the plan, supplies, and manpower to attack 5 different projects at 5 different homes throughout Kilmarnock and neighboring towns. We were reroofing 3 houses, painting the outside of one house, and repairing an unsafe and dilapidated front porch and back deck of another house. But we ended up adding another reroof job and even throwing in the painting of an entire side of the very large dining hall of the camp we stayed at; a project that served as a kind of “thanks” to our hosts.
I’m usually serving as a leader on one of the worksites, and so am dedicated to that one location all week. But this year I was given the opportunity to “float” between all the various locations in order to visit, bring needed supplies, and encourage those at each site. So I spent the lion’s share of my time this past week behind the wheel of a sturdy, blue pick-up truck. I loved seeing every work crew every day and the progress being made.
The first thing I noticed was common among nearly all the work crews. There are some middle school students who seem to get right to work when a task is in front of them and there are those who seem to avoid work for as long as possible. We call it “work ethic” and it describes which side a person is on. Some seemed to not be able to get enough of the progress and momentum hard work brings, and some were completely content to sit and watch the progress happen at the hands of others. What creates a good work ethic in a student has a large part to do with upbringing and parental example. Not exclusively however, because I know many of the students’ parents and while I know them to be extremely hard workers their kids are still exhibiting the qualities of a loafer. I’m glad to say though that this is was by far the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of our students were eager to serve the needs of others; even total strangers as was the case this past week. And it was incredible to watch.
When we returned to camp mid- to late-afternoon each day, we gave students some downtime to rest, swim, or play. Our expansive camp was equipped with a large in-ground pool, and is located on an inlet with a large dock where students could fish or just hang their feet over the edge and enjoy the breeze.
After dinner each night we had a worship service that included a time of “bragging” students could do on each other. This is a time when any student or leader could share something they saw in another person that day; something that encouraged them or blessed them. The only rule: you can’t brag on yourself.
After bragging time, we got into some worship singing and you simply haven’t lived until you’ve been in a large room with 50 middle schoolers singing praise to Jesus literally at the top of their lungs. In fact, their favorite song to sing last week was a song by a band named “Starfield” called…you guessed it…”At the top of our lungs!” Here’s a taste of that here…
After some time of singing, I was humbled and amazed to be used to deliver God’s Word to the students. This week of messages has been unlike most that I’ve delivered. Whereas I would normally have a handful of pages of typed notes to keep me on track with what I had prepared, my preparation for these messages consisted of prayer and nothing more than a few words scribbled on a legal pad. Based on the freedom this approach offered me, I may never go back.
Monday night: We looked at the 2 men crucified on either side of Jesus and saw in them 2 distinct choices we can make in regards to the cross: defiance or reliance? (Luke 23)
Tuesday night: We discussed the temporary condition of everything we see and conversely the eternal condition of all that is invisible. (2 Cor. 4:18) Then we decided if we’ll put more investment in the “pinky nail” thickness of this life or the unending line of eternity.
Wednesday night: We took a look at Peter. Peter was a loud-mouth who’d often speak before thinking. We looked at several instances between he and Jesus, but focused on Jesus’ question of Peter (and us): “Do you love me?” (John 21)
Thursday night: I wanted to attack the “critically incomplete” image that most of us have of Jesus. Think of Jesus and you’ll likely have mental pictures of a fair-skinned, hair-flowing, blue-eyed, white robe-wearing, baby blue Miss America sash-sporting, twinkle-in-his-eye Jesus. So we took a look at several instances when Jesus went ballistic. Through them all, we learned about “the other side of Jesus”. Needless to say, I had a roomful of middle schoolers who were shocked at what they heard as God blew up their view of a mind-mannered, mamsy-pamsy, milk-toast Jesus and replaced it with a wild-eyed Messiah worthy of their everything as He calls them into adventurous living.
On Friday night, I had felt unmistakably that God has put a message on my heart to share. However, I was also least confident of how the passage I was speaking on was going to connect in any way with middle schoolers. Even as I began sharing the message, I felt (humanly speaking) like this one might actually end up being a “dud”. I should have remembered that God doesn’t really care what I think He can do. He took this message and used it to pierce the hearts of so many students and before I knew it the room was filled with students literally standing to their feet in proclamation that their decision is to live louder and louder lives that scream the love of God to the world around them; that they were going to live free from what the world says they’re worth and instead stand on the truth of what God says. Students moved around the room, gathering in clusters with leaders they love and who love them to pray together and cement their commitments. Then they began to gather with each other and pray in groups all around the room. Some prayed aloud while others wept at the undeniable presence of God’s Spirit. Our high school student leaders took every opportunity to pray with the middle schoolers who they had spent the week loving and investing in. Others just sat in amazement at what was going on around them. No matter what an individual’s response to God that night, no one could deny it: God had made Himself evident. Even I couldn’t have guessed that God would have done what He did that night, especially given the passage He had laid on my heart to share: The stoning of Stephen (Acts 7).
Saturday we ended the week of messages by focusing on the utter freedom we have in Christ. That all of us were sitting on death row, waiting for our turn on the gurney when Jesus walked the hall to our cell, key in hand and freedom from it all as a gift to us. As I shared “Christians are the only people on earth who have absolutely nothing to fear!” It is us who should live as the most hysterical and hilarious people on the planet! I used Romans 8:1 as a starting point and then went to 2 Cor. 3:17, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom”, 1 Peter 2:16, “Live as free people…live as God’s slaves”, and Galatians 5:1, “It is for freedom Christ has set us free!” I believe many students felt chains falling off their hands and feet that night.
But I’ve always believed that while the success of a work site on a mission trip is one thing, the success of the mission trip overall is quite another. We can all see when the last shingle on a roof is nailed down. We can all see when the last brush stroke on a painted house is made. But when it comes to lasting impact, we must trust God’s Spirit to connect the dots between there and here. Even having given students follow-up devotions and things to do once they return home, we have to trust God to continue His work in their hearts as we continue to love them unconditionally with His love.
The theme of our week away was “Live Love Louder”, and I pray and hope that this is precisely what we’ll all do after having gone through this experience together. That we would live unashamed lives of the loud kind of love that God gives to every one of us.