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.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Rocking Baby Jesus

Photo by Greyson Joralemon
This year the Christmas season seemed to take me down rather than build me up.  December was a tough month for many reasons.  On top of the usual wrapping presents, stamping Christmas cards, attending parties craziness, we had some added challenges.  A close relative had emergency surgery, I had two different versions of the flu, and my children experienced this flu in the form of a tummy bug after a birthday party. 

I tried to focus on the meaning of the season, I really did. I read my Advent devotional.  I listened to Christmas music.  I put up manger scenes around my house.  However, it just seemed a little harder this year to focus on its meaning.

The other day, however, I walked into my daughter's room and asked what she was doing.  My sweet three-year-old had her head bowed, her eyes gazing down at a little baby doll, which she was cradling in her arms.  "I'm rocking baby Jesus," she replied. 

The beauty of this moment stopped me in my tracks.  I stood there gazing at her for a few moments, taking it in. 

Rocking baby Jesus.  The meaning of Christmas hit me once again.  Jesus came down in human flesh.  As a babe.  Not some perfect, never-crying infant, but as a real, live baby.  One who screamed at his birth and wiggled around in his mother's arms.  One who needed milk and comfort and love. 

A baby who needed to be rocked.

What beauty there is in a God who willingly chooses to come down from Heaven to become a little baby.  A God who makes himself vulnerable and allows himself to be dressed and fed and taken care of by his new, young mother. 

A baby who needs to be rocked.

As the long, cold days of January stretch on, may we keep this babe in our arms.  May we remember to rock him close and gaze down at his beauty.  The beauty of Emmanuel, God with us.