Monday, March 4, 2019

Faithful Adults

Photo by Steven Van Loy
This has been a really up and down kind of week.  I found out on Friday that one of my best friends growing up lost his father to a heart attack on Thursday.  This hit me really hard, one because I know how hard it must be for my friend, and two because his family was like my own family.  I grew up in a small church in Painted Post, NY, and the moms and dads at the church became like our own moms and dads.  I spent a lot of time over at Fran's house during my high school years.  My friends Kelly and Nick and I would hang out and eat chips and talk and play board games.  Mr. Gasparri would welcome us and joke around with us and treat us like one of his own kids.  Mr. and Mrs. Gasparri were another example to me of what Christian parents should be.

In high school, my friends and I were lucky enough to have lots of loving Christian adults surrounding us.  Our youth group was small, and none of our youth leaders had a theological degree or got paid for what they were doing.  They just loved hanging out with us and talking with us about God.  Our youth leader, Mr. Grace (I mean, really??!), showed us God as he allowed us to ask deep questions and work out our faith as we went through the challenges of growing up.  I remember one time when we were all at a youth conference, and he was so tired that he had fallen asleep while we were all in the room jumping up and down, listening to music and talking and singing.  We had worn him out!  We wore out our youth leaders on many occasions, as our favorite thing to do was have sleepovers at the church.  Mrs. Gasparri would join us every time, reading a book as we ran around, eating Pixi Stix and playing games.

For me, it all began in 3rd grade.  My Sunday School teacher, Miss Dew, prayed a prayer with us to accept Jesus into our hearts.  I remember very clearly sitting in the tiny chairs with our hands folded, heads bowed, praying the most important prayer of our lives.

In middle and high school, we were blessed with so many amazing adults, including Mr. Grace, Jill and Tony, Michelle, Pam and Doug, among others.  They cared about us, forgave us, and taught us through their lessons of faith and life.  Most of the time, we'd just be hanging out at the Gasparri's or the Morehouses' home and we'd get into a deep discussion of faith that they may not have been expecting.  They opened up their homes and hearts to us, and reminded us that, along with our own parents, they were there for us.

When Mr. Gasparri passed away last week, it was sad on many levels.  Sad to lose an extended "family" member and sad to think about the fact that four of my friends and I have lost parents already, before our 40th birthdays.  One friend has actually lost both of her parents.  It doesn't seem right.  As I approach 40, it has also added to my "mid-life crisis." I'm realizing that if I died at their ages, I only have about 20 years left to live.  If I live to an older age, I've probably lived about half of my life or a little less.  This scares me.  Not because I've lived a bad life or because I'm scared to die, but because I feel like I have so much more to do here on this earth.  I want to share Jesus and live for Him in big ways.

For now, I'll take a deep, trusting breath.  I'll lean in to God, knowing that He knows what He is doing.  He put some amazing adults on my path and He will continue walking with me for all my days.  Let's be those faithful adults for the teens and children that come across our paths.  We may be the only Jesus that they see, so let's make Him known through our love.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Moses...and me?

Photo by Tyler Callahan

I got a C on my talk.  There, I said it.

I had never gotten a C in my life.  I had always been a straight-A student, due to my perfectionistic tendencies and the fact that I simply loved to learn new things.  The C threw me, and it shook my self-esteem.  I don't think I've ever fully recovered from it.  Although, thinking back on it, I probably deserved a C, because it was actually a pretty bad talk.

The talk was for a youth ministry class in college.  We were supposed to give a talk to our class as if they were teenagers.  I'd never really given a quote on quote, "talk," to teens before.  I'd led a lot of Bible studies, worked with every age group at camp, led songs and small groups for students, began a drama ministry...all of that, but never a full-blown "talk" per se.

You see, I'm not a speaker.  At least that's what I've always been told, and have continually told myself.  Others in my class were great speakers.  Others became good speakers after many years of speaking to youth and adults.  Some even went on to speak at large events, including the Creation music festival.  But, not me.  Did I give many talks at youth group?  Sure.  Did I lead lots of Bible studies, definitely.  Did I take the Dale Carnegie course and improve my speaking?  I did, and I improved a lot.

However, if you had asked me 20 years ago, or even 5 years ago, if I'd ever be a speaker at a conference, I would have said no.  I probably would have laughed in your face and then turned away and ran.

So did Moses.  In The Message version of Exodus 4:10, it says that "Moses raised another objection to God:  'Master, please, I don't talk well.  I've never been good with words, neither before nor after you spoke to me.  I stutter and stammer.'"

Well, recently, God asked me to do just that.  I have been writing/editing curriculum for preteens through for the last couple of years, after having worked with preteens for about 11 years.  The director emailed me, knowing that their online conference for preteen leaders was coming up.  He said, "I was thinking of who to ask to speak, and your name came up."

My first thought was "No."  "Absolutely not. I'm not a good speaker."  But, instead of letting my initial reaction take over, I waited.  That afternoon, I turned the page in my calendar, and this is what it said:
I stopped and stared at it.  Just a few days before, I had been praying for God to use me in big ways in 2019 and to help me to accomplish great things for His Kingdom.  When I read this message, I knew I had to consider speaking at the conference.

I sat down and wrote out some possible ideas for what I would speak about, and the ideas came pouring out of me. That was when I realized that I had to say yes because I really did have something to say!  A couple of weeks later, God confirmed my decision as our pastor talked about living a purposeFULL life. To do this, we needed to do the one thing that God has been asking us to do, but we've been avoiding.

"Ok, God, I get it!"  I thought to myself.

As I wrote the talks for the two breakout sessions that I would be leading, I realized that I really did have a lot to teach others about the two topics.  So, why would I not want to share what I had learned, so that other preteen ministries could benefit from my experiences?

Well, last week, I did.  I spoke at the 2019 Preteen Leaders Conference.  Here I am! I took a photo of myself on the screen.  Not so I could brag about it later, but to prove to myself that I actually did it!  Who'd have thought that I, Alisa Laska, would actually be a conference speaker?  It just goes to show, never say never.  Especially to God!

During the conference, God was speaking to me as well.  Isaiah 43:19 was our theme verse for the conference: "See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?  I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland."  (NIV)  Our theme was "What if...?" and we talked about how to think about things in ministry in new or different ways.  One of our opening speakers, Ryan Frank, said that we should start by understanding who we are as individuals.  To become acutely self-aware about how God has wired you and to be ok with that.  Don't compare yourself to others.  You bring a special gift to the kids you minister to that is uniquely yours.  Embrace and celebrate who you are and how God has wired you to serve him.  Another speaker, Jim Wideman, said that we shouldn't ask what others are doing that is working, but instead, we should be wondering, "What is God asking ME to do?"

I know, as Moses did, that God might not have wired me to be an amazing speaker.  I'll never be Billy Graham or Barack Obama.  But, I'm ok with that.  I've learned from this experience that God wired me to be uniquely me, with passions, gifts, and skills that only I possess.  I have experiences in ministry that I can teach others, who will then teach their preteens.  I decided to say yes to God, because he can equip us, through the Holy Spirit and His work and power within us, to do anything He asks of us.

What is God asking YOU to do that you are hesitant to commit to?  Say YES to God and you'll be amazed at all that He can accomplish through a willing heart.  "See, I am doing a new thing!"


Wednesday, January 30, 2019

One Sweet Day: Our Mentor, Pastor Rob

Photo by Ben White
Today I will continue my series on people who have influenced my life and altered it in some way.  Pastor Rob was the pastor at First Baptist Church of Painted Post, NY, during my middle and early high school years.  He was a kind man with a caring smile that was unmatched.  He taught our 7th & 8th grade Sunday School class, and I can still remember one specific Sunday.  He was teaching us a lesson about Paul's travels, and my friends and I were not too interested.  We started hitting each other with Bibles and kicking our legs under the table.  Pastor Rob was unfazed.  He continued with the lesson and shared his love for the Lord with us.  As we grew older, he answered all of our questions about the Bible and challenged us to apply it to our lives. He truly cared about us as people and spent time talking to us.  He believed in teenagers and was instrumental in having one placed on each of the church boards.  He put up with us as we sat in the front pews of the sanctuary, whispering during the sermons.  He let us paint the walls and ceilings of our youth room and challenged us each to give a short sermon when we became seniors. 

Pastor Rob taught our Baptism classes.  As 8th graders, we talked about the church and all of our tough questions of faith as we ate pizza in the basement.  I can still remember walking through the water to him and having him dip me back in the water and bless me with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  As my friend Fran, who was also baptized that day, said, "He was a man who exuded faith and was a rock in our lives."

He was a wonderful young pastor, with children and a loving wife.  At age 33, my tenth-grade year, he went in for a minor heart procedure, but by the end of the week, he had passed away. 

We were in shock.  Rob had been our pastor, our friend, our mentor, and now he was gone.  At age 16, this was my first experience with loss and grief.  Our youth group banned together.  We gathered in our youth room with our friends and youth leaders.  They prayed with us and talked to us, letting us ask the hard questions.  The questions of "why."  They allowed us the space to be together, to cry and to grieve.  As my friend Fran said, "I still remember the day he passed.  The youth all sat at the front of the sanctuary and sang every song we could think of, praising God in the midst of a terrible tragedy."  This image of my friends and I crying and singing in the sanctuary will be forever burned into my mind.  It was a turning point for our youth group.  We grew closer to each other as we clung to each other for support.  The experience grew my faith as I asked the tough questions.  I didn't necessarily receive answers, but I developed a faith that carried me through my grief.

One measure of solace for me was the song "One Sweet Day" by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men.  These lyrics brought me comfort:

"And I know you're shining down on me from heaven.
Like so many friends we've lost along the way.
And I know eventually, we'll be together.
One sweet day."

I held on to the fact that I would one day see my pastor again in heaven.  I'd tell him all about my life and we'd rejoice together in the Lord. 

Rob's life and death shaped us as people and influenced our futures.  Due in part to his caring mentorship, two of us went on to go into ministry.  Fran says that "His impact on my life is the reason that I went to Eastern Seminary."  He went on to become the pastor of a church in upstate N.Y.  I went on to youth ministry so that I could pass on that care and mentorship to other teens.

A few years ago, I was teaching a class on Paul and his writings to adults from our church.  I mentioned Rev. Rob as part of my story, and an older woman in faith told me something I will never forget.  She said that though it seemed that Rev. Rob's life and ministry had been cut short, Fran and I were continuing on his ministry.  When she said those words, I got tears in my eyes.  I had never thought of it that way.  Symbolically, my friend and I were carrying on the ministry that Rev. Rob had begun in us that day he began teaching us about the ministry journeys of Paul.  As 2 Timothy 2:2 states, "And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others." 

The influence of mentors such as Rev. Rob and Rev. Gloria, who I wrote about last week, cannot be measured in worldly terms, but through exponential growth in the Kingdom of God.

Thanks, Pastor Rob, for all that you taught me.  I'll see you again, "one sweet day."

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Taking A Chance On Me

Today I will begin a series of blogs about people who have influenced my faith and life in big ways, in some cases altering the course of it altogether.  I decided to start with one person who carried around a can of RAID wherever she went.  Let me explain…

Growing up, Camp Vick, an American Baptist Churches camp in upstate NY was one of the places where I really fell in love with Christ.  I attended camp for the first time in 8th grade.  I slept in a tent with a wooden floor along with five other girls and a counselor.  We talked about what boys we liked and the latest fashions, but by the Friday night campfire, we’d fallen in love with more than just the boys in Cabin 5.  Many of us had met our Savior.  We kept in touch with our camp friends by writing letters.  (Yes, actual handwritten letters!  I still keep in touch with many of my camp friends, but we’ve upgraded to Facebook now.) We couldn’t wait to return to camp the next year.  We enjoyed paddling canoes around the lake, eating grilled cheese in the dining hall, lying on our backs and looking up at the constellations in the dark summer sky.  We loved all of the counselors, including one who I can still picture singing “Dem Bones Gonna Rise Again” at every campfire.

As we got older, we’d do anything we could just to be at camp for an extra week during the summer.  I cleaned bathrooms (By the way, Francis, what’s the string for again?), raked trails, and even volunteered in the kitchen.  (And I cannot cook to save my life!)  My favorite jobs around camp were by far the ones where I interacted with campers, either as a Leader-In-Training or as a Counselor for a cabin of girls.  It was during one such week where I felt God’s call begin to develop in my life as a mere whisper. It happened during Jr High Camp when a boy named Matt asked me for advice about a girl in my cabin.  I started to see that teens saw me as a good listener, someone they could trust.

And then came the Reverend Gloria.  A tall, feisty woman from “the big city” of Philadelphia, who’d been called by God to come to the “boonies” of upstate NY to be our Camp Director.  At first, we weren’t sure what to think of her.  She was different than anyone we’d ever met at camp.  She was loud, she was feisty, but boy could she PREACH.  She was filled with the Holy Spirit and it oozed out of her everywhere that she went.  She turned our heads and our hearts for sure.
Being from the city, the country, where our camp was located, was very different from anything she’d experienced.  Before coming to Camp Vick, she’d never seen a cow in real life.  This amused those of us who passed several dairy farms on our way to school every day.  Every time we were riding in a car with Rev. Gloria and we saw a cow, we had to stop!  She’d get out and talk to the cow, perhaps pet it if it was close enough and even sing to it.  We laughed every time.

Although she loved cows, she did not like bugs one ounce.  She carried around her can of RAID, spraying it directly at any bug that flew into her vicinity.  It became her new perfume.  A friend remembers that she even let go of the wheel of her car once and the others in the car had to kill the bug before she would drive any further.  Although she hated bugs, another friend remembers that she could clean and fry up a fish like no one else.  I guess she did like some parts of country life!

Although Camp Vick’s location was way out of her comfort zone, she threw herself into ministry there.  During morning exercises, she’d run around the soccer field with the campers, saying that if she could do it, they could do it!  She threw every ounce of energy she had into running the camp with her own personality and style.  And we loved it!  She took every challenge in stride, including our donated camp van, which was constantly breaking down.  To this day, I still pray the prayer she would pray every time we got in the van: “Dear God, please keep us safe from accidents or incidents as we drive today.”

What we loved most was her heart for the Lord. Her affection for Him was evident from early morning prayers in the chapel to evening campfires to walks along the trails.  What I remember most vividly was how she took our Friday night worship service up about 1,000 notches.  At the end of a long and stressful week on staff, she brought us back to the real meaning of what we were doing and encouraged us again with her words.  Each Friday, she’d preach the Gospel message and many children and teens would give their lives to the Lord.  We’d all symbolically place a lighted candle into a wooden cross and then we’d float it out into the lake.  A tradition that still continues at Camp Vick.  When I think of camp, this is one of the first images that come to mind as I remember Jesus being so palpable on those warm Friday nights by the lake.

A couple of years into her tenure as camp director, Rev. Gloria made a decision that would alter the course of my life.  She chose me to be the co-program director that summer with another girl my age.  She saw something in me as a counselor that I hadn’t yet seen in myself, knowing that I would grow to thrive in that role.  She gave me the opportunity to be stretched outside of my comfort zone as a quiet young adult and to be molded into a leader.  I learned as 2 Timothy 1:7 instructs, that “the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.”  God does not usually call people who are already ready for the job.  He stretches us and grows us and makes sure it is His glory that is revealed, not our own.

Rev. Gloria counseled me and taught me and guided me.  She also told me jokingly that I should “never hand-write an address on a letter again” due to my bad handwriting.  It’s the little things you often remember most about a person.

Because Rev. Gloria chose me to fulfill such a role, I grew and found gifts I didn’t know that I had.  My calling into Youth Ministry began to develop, and as I chose a college, I decided to major in Youth Ministry and English/Writing.  I ended up spending fifteen years in professional Youth Ministry.  Looking back, it was Camp Vick and the amazing counselors, camp pastors, and directors who influenced my spiritual life as a whole and encouraged me to take that enthusiasm out to the local church and minister to teens.  It also helped me to develop life-long Christian friends who I know will always be there for me.

Camp Vick and Rev. Gloria influenced more than just me.  My Co-Program Director that year would go on to later become the director of Camp Vick herself from 2003-2017 and now the director at Camp Cowen, a Baptist Camp in West Virginia.  Rev. Gloria encouraged another man to go to college and later seminary and two close friends who were on staff with me later became full-time pastors.

What I learned from Rev. Gloria is that it’s important to take a chance on someone.  Look deep inside of them and see what gifts God may be ready to mold and shape into a beautiful masterpiece in His grand Kingdom plan.  You’ll never know until you take that chance.

The cross at Camp Vick

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Small Things With Great Love: Remembering Chris

Photo by Samuel Zeller
Randall recently said on "This Is Us" that sometimes it feels harder to be a good man than a great man.  We all want to do something great with our lives.  The past two and a half years, I've struggled with what to do with the second half of my life, knowing that I want to do something great with it.  Sometimes, the hard part, the best part really, is what we do with our every day, walking around life.  As Mother Teresa once said, "Not all of us can do great things.  But we can do small things with great love."  My friend Chris did just that.

Some lucky people live to be 100, and then there are others who only live for a few minutes or days, or in the case of my friend Chris, only 20 years.  Having been in youth ministry for 15 years, I always loved the celebration moments.  The graduations, the birthday parties, and now the weddings and births of babies.  The deaths are the ones that absolutely break my heart.  This is the third young person from my time in ministry to pass away.  It has left me breathless with grief, but also helped me to remember what life is all about.

Adopted at less than a year from Russia, Chris came to the United States, where he was fiercely loved by his parents and his church family.  He lived what some may consider a regular childhood, swimming on the team at the local pool, camping with the Scouts, going on adventures and mission trips with our church.  He died his hair blue or orange depending on the week.  He had a sweet smile and made everyone around him laugh at the little things in life.  He had a beautiful spirit about him, one that cared about the people some may not usually care about.  He loved to sing to the elderly, eat lunch with the outcasts, and most of all, to rescue hurt, sick, or dying animals.

Chris smiling on our Club 456 Winter Trip.

We never knew what animal Chris would rescue next, from mice to cats to birds to dogs.  Sometimes he would even bring them with him to church, as he had just found them on the way there.  "Look what I found!" he'd exclaim and then proceed to tell us how he'd help to fix whatever was ailing that particular animal.  One of my favorite Club 456 meetings was the time I asked Chris to come and lead us in a project to help rescue animals.  He brought his knowledge and his passion to the group.
Chris leading a Club 456 project for rescued animals.

He himself had been "rescued" from a life unknown.  He would go on to rescue many other creatures.  As an accident-prone young man, like these animals he helped, Chris got hurt many times, suffering broken bones and concussions.  He also had an odd allergy to blue die which prevented him from eating regular old marshmallows.  One sweet youth leader found some he was able to eat and all was right with the world.

Chris had his share of struggles, griefs and pain.  There was a lot he went through in his high school years that many of us never knew about.  But, as I look back on the years when I knew him best, I will always remember him as a sweet adventurer.  One who looked for the broken and hurting, to help put them back together again.  He may not have had time to do something huge with his life, but in his twenty years, he truly did "small things with great love."

Visiting and singing to the elderly on a Club 456 Mission Trip.

Buying food for the hungry.

Bowling with the elderly.
Talking with a man from church on the CROP Walk for Hunger.

Making blankets for shelter pets.

Playing messy games at Club 456.

Sorting food during the 30 Hour Famine.

That smile...

Christopher Thurman

September 30, 1999 - January 7, 2019

May our adventures together always be remembered.