You see my heart as I sin against you. You see my filth, my defiance, you feel the whips and the shards of glass, the thorns crushed into your skull, the nails piercing through your hands and your feet, the agony as you struggle for breath, the cold darkness of isolation. Lord, you bear it all even as I doubt your love for me. Even as I blame you for my sin.
And you never change your mind.
You watch as I run from you and you chase after me, calling my name in the sweetest tone. And you never stop chasing me, no matter how far I run. No matter what choices I make, you keep loving me, you keep chasing me, you wait for my return, my surrender.
And when I finally turn back, you fold me into your arms and kiss my brow and not a harsh word is on your lips.
Lord, you are so kind. You are love. You are grace and mercy.
Last month (April 1-6), I had the privilege to serve as a Short Term Missionary (hereafter referred to as STM) at the Joni and Friends Family Retreat at Wonder Valley. Honestly, when I first agreed that I would do this, I wasn’t really giving it much thought…I just knew that I had the time, would probably be able to raise the funds, and could be of service to someone who needed it. I had heard about this camp before, having written about it for my church newsletter a while back, and I was interested in the things that they were doing there. So, I went into it thinking, “this could be a neat experience.” Let me tell you now, “neat” was a gross underestimation.
[I’ve broken this up into parts because that’s kind of how my brain works…]
Part 1: Leading up to camp
Let me start off by telling you a bit more about this camp, in case you are not familiar with it. Joni and Friends Family Retreats are week-long (roughly) camps for families who are affected by disability (whether it be physical, developmental, etc). Typically, it is one or more of the children in the family who have a disability, but the rest of the family is affected by this as well. Caring for these children is not an easy task and these families are on the job every single day. These retreats give these families the opportunity to have a vacation. Not only do they get time together as a family doing fun things that may or may not usually be accessible to them, but they also get some time to be around their own age groups, kids playing with other kids and adults spending time with other adults, and generally getting to be around people who can relate to them. One of the major ways that these retreats make all of these things possible is by assigning trained volunteers (STMs) to each family for the purpose of serving and aiding them throughout the week.
As the week of camp drew nearer and nearer, I started to think about what serving as an STM would require of me. I became a bit worried as I started to realize just how self-centered I am and how much I am used to taking care of my own wants and needs before considering others. This is a troubling thing to begin with, but it was even more disturbing to me as I knew that I was entering into a situation in which I would need a selfless, servant-hearted attitude in order to accomplish what I had signed up for. I did not want to be a poor representation of Christ to whomever I was assigned. I wanted to please the Lord by reflecting His character, and I knew that I would not be able to do so by my own strength and “will power.” Humility and servant-heartedness are things that do not come naturally to sinful mankind, but are only accomplished by the grace of God. And so, I prayed for God to change me, even if it were just for that week, into one who regards others as more important than myself (Phil. 2:3).
Part 2: Training and Preparations
Arriving at camp, the STM’s had about a day and a half of training to get through before the families arrived. We bonded together, learning about various disabilities and how to deal with different things that we might encounter and so on and so forth. Something that really meant a lot to me and remained with me throughout the week, and indeed, after that week, was that in order to serve in such a way that would display the love of Christ, we must constantly come to Him in prayer and depend completely on the grace of God.
All throughout the first day (the day before the families arrived), I was nervous, not knowing which family I would be assigned to. I kept thinking that once I knew who my camper was and what disability my camper had, then I would know, more or less, what I was going to be dealing with and could start preparing my mind and praying more specifically about my assigned family. That night, when we got our assignments, I learned that I would be caring for a 4 year-old boy who had autism. My first thought was, “now I still don’t know what I’m dealing with.” As you may or may not know, autism sort of ranges from mild to severe and the affects of it vary from person to person. So, all I could really count on was that I would have to adapt and learn as I went. And so, I began praying even harder for the week to go smoothly and for my assigned family to be able to relax, enjoy themselves, and really experience the love of Christ. It was nice to finally be able to pray for them by name.
Part 3: Meeting my Camper/family and getting started
As the time (the second day) for me to actually meet my assigned camper and family drew nearer, I became more and more nervous. Thankfully, I had many brothers and sisters in Christ around me who could encourage and pray for me. When I finally laid eyes on my precious little camper and his equally-as-precious twin brother, my excitement and joy won-out and my nervousness was no where to be seen. To my delight, the mother and father of my camper turned out to be very kind and loving people and I felt a connection with the whole family almost instantly. I quickly learned about my camper and his twin brother (who also has autism – he was assigned another STM and we worked together a lot of the time), their little quirks, cleverness, character, and the differences between them. By the end of that first day of serving my camper and his family, there was already so much love in my heart for them; all I wanted to do was spend time with them and help them with whatever they needed or wanted. I couldn’t keep from smiling as I realized that there was literally no place in the world that I would rather have been at that moment, than right where the Lord had placed me. The Lord had, indeed, already answered my prayer.
Part 4: The rest of the week/concluding thoughts
All throughout the week, my days were very busy, and I noticed that I had a lot more energy and stamina than usual, which could only have come from the Lord. I remember feeling so blessed. It was so satisfying to spend my entire day serving someone else and not focusing so much on myself. I enjoyed watching the parents of my camper relax and enjoy themselves, having extra hands to take care of things. I loved looking around and seeing so many families in such a happy state, in which they did not have all the usual troubles weighing on their shoulders. It was so neat to be in a place where everyone could just be themselves. If a child began screaming or doing other things that would usually be considered “disruptive” or “rude,” it was received with understanding and grace rather than judgmental stares and ignorant whispers. If ever a parent felt overwhelmed, there was someone there to help lighten the load. All of us STMs worked really hard throughout the week, but it was some of the most satisfying work we had ever done. I know from my own experience, and from talking to other STMs, that we left that camp feeling as though we were more blessed by the families we served and the work that God had done in our hearts than we had even anticipated. I really did not want to leave that place. I had grown so attached to my camper and family as well as the overall environment of the camp – so much so that I had a good cry as I was leaving the camp to go back home.
It was truly an eye-opening experience that I will not soon forget. My whole outlook on service has been altered for the better, as has my understanding of families affected by disability. The Lord has used this experience to grow my desire for service and my love for others. I would urge everyone to prayerfully consider trying something like this at least once. I promise you, it will be an unforgettable experience that you are likely to carry with you for the rest of your life. And, if you are like me, you will quickly decide that this is something you want to be involved with every year.
Please feel free to ask/talk to me more about the camp if you feel so inclined 🙂 I was not super specific in this blog because I didn’t want it to be too long and also because I wasn’t sure how detailed I should get about my particular family and whatnot. However I am open to talking about it on a one-on-one sort of basis. 🙂
Something that has become more and more evident to me through the things I am experiencing this year is that I am not in control. Of anything. Sure, I have responsibilities, I have my own domain over which I have some authority, but ultimately, I have no control. Something else that I have learned is to be thankful for this simple fact. I am not in control, but I know the sovereign God who is. I am so glad that it is He who is in control of my life and not me. What a mess I could make of things.
So, of which experiences am I speaking? Well, there have been a number of things, but I’ll give you the one that seemed to spark the flame that started this wildfire. Earlier this year, I was sitting in a plane staring out the window. My flight was late at night. The sky was completely black and, looking out, I could see nothing, unless I looked down at the man-made lights below (until, of course I was too far up to even see those). It gave me such a feeling…it is difficult to explain. But just looking out there, seeing nothing and knowing that if we were to fall, nothing would catch us…knowing that I was in this improbable machine that is just so heavy it seems like it should never be able to fly up in the sky…knowing that I could not control the plane, but had to trust a stranger to pilot it…knowing all of these things and really thinking about them made me feel strangely free. I felt calm, yet also exhilarated, especially when I realized that my whole life is like this. I am not the one in control. I could plan to fly to a specific destination at a specific time, but the plane could arrive somewhere else entirely at a time that I deem undesirable, or the plane could fall out of the sky and crash to the ground. It is not in my hands. And I know that wherever my plane may land (or crash) is right where it was intended to go all along. It is the right place for me to glorify God in whichever way He has ordained. My attitude toward this should never be anything but thankfulness, reverence, and joyfulness.
What about the things that I do? The things that I have a knack for? What about creativity? Yes, God is sovereign over that, too. I can’t just turn it on. When I want to write something, I can’t just flip a switch and have all my creative juices ready to flow when I need them. In fact, creativity and being able to create things only exist in us because we are made in the image of the original Creator; the one who had the brilliant idea to create everything we see (and don’t see). He invented creativity. He even created the things that we use to create other things.
Since I am now finished with school (have been since mid-December!), I have expected that I would have more time to write and that I would be working on some new project by this point in the year. Sure, I’ve scribbled down a few ideas here and there, but nothing that I’ve really felt the urge to develop. I’ve tried various tricks that usually spark my creativity and imagination, but the things I’ve come up with have been utterly dry. When my friends have asked me if I’ve been working on anything new, I’ve had to sheepishly inform them that I have not. I kept wondering what was wrong with me. Maybe I’m not a writer after all…maybe it was just a phase that is now over. Just letting that thought cross my mind stung horribly. I knew it couldn’t have just been a phase because I still had a passion for it. Then I realized…my talent, my creativity, my abilities do not come from me. The only reason I am ever able to write something worth reading is because God has granted it to me. When I stopped focusing on myself and what I could be doing to fix the problem, I resolved to stop worrying about it. If God wants me to write, I will write. If He wants me to have ideas, I’ll have ideas. He is in control. He calls the shots. And when my mind was finally in that place, where writing wasn’t about me and didn’t come from me, I still had writer’s block, but I was okay with that. And when I finally had an idea that I wanted to run with, and I finally felt like that word drought was being washed away by a gracious rainfall, I knew who to thank and who to continue to depend on. And it most definitely was not me.
Arriving home from a short vacation, I had so many plans for the week ahead. There are people to spend time with, projects to finish and a messy bedroom to clean. But just before I left to head home, I began to feel sick. I didn’t feel too terrible at first, thinking I would probably feel better soon and would still be able to go about my week with all the things that I was so confident I would be able to do. But the illness got worse upon my arrival home and the next morning I felt more sick than I have in over three years. I became useless, not being able to stand for very long and not having the strength to do anything that wasn’t a sedentary activity.
I am reminded, here, of a few different things. First off, there is nothing like illness that reminds me so well of the effects of sin and the utter weakness of mankind. Second: Proverbs 16:9 which says “The mind of man plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps.” and James 4:14-15 which says “Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.'” I am reminded that I don’t have as much control of my life, as I often think that I do. God is sovereign over everything. I had planned to do so many things, but He planned for me to slow down and realize my dependance on Him. He has reminded me that I am but a feeble human and the only way that I can accomplish anything is by the strength that He gives me.
I find joy in the fact that the Lord can bring all of this to my attention by simply allowing me to catch the flu (or whatever this is).