May 29, 2011

Fear and Snorkeling at Playa Santa

I grew up in Michigan, where we have no oceans.

We have Lake Michigan, a deep, blue, cold body of water you cannot see across. Might as well be an ocean, right? Actually, I often think of it as better than an ocean. From mid-June to early September, when it's swimmable, it couldnt' be more pleasant. No salt, cool but comfortable and always a relief from hot sand. You can stand at its edge and picture Wisconsin just over the horizon.

It can be vast and intimidating and rough, but it is finite. It is, at least generally, safe.

You do not get the same feeling standing at the edge of the ocean. The horizon is somehow more distant; the water is deep and dark and swimming with untold, unfound creatures; it is unfathomable, infinite, dangerous.

I've stood on rocks on the north shore of this island and watched the waves swell and recede, swell and recede, picturing myself being helplessly tossed in their wake. Crushed. Powerless in their grasp. I have new found awe and respect for the ocean.

Which is why it takes me at least a little bit of courage to step off land and wade in, even where it's calm, even where it's shallow.

There's a beach an hour west of camp, called Playa Santa. I drove there on my first long solo trip here, with snorkeling gear in my backpack. I parked the truck, staked out a spot on the empty beach, and awkwardly high-stepped my flippers into the water.

You do not snorkel alone.

The last time I went into the Caribbean, I took a jellyfish sting to the back of my knee. This was more than 12 years ago, and I had been 14. So with that in mind, I glided cautiously out over the sea grass, with the coarse sand and sea cucumbers drifting by beneath me. I looked warily around, for fish, for jellyfish, for anything. This was not some sane, sterile place. Anything could be here. This was the ocean, vast and supremely unknown to me.

I was afraid and alone. Anything that grazed me there made me jump. This was hardly leisure, so I didn't stay long. I didn't even make it out to the reef, 100 yards offshore. I turned around and went back and spent the rest of my time near shore.

Recently, I went back to the same beach, this time with friends.

We donned our masks and snorkels and high-stepped out into the sea. Harmless sea cucumbers, coarse sand, sea grass drifting by beneath us. Us. This time I was less afraid, with some more experience and company in tow.

Out, floating on the water. Out, over the beer cans the locals and tourists have donated. Out, over the meager makings of a dying reef. Out, to the real reef.

There was a leak in my mask, salt water seeping into my nose and down my throat, sitting on my lips, stinging a scrape on my knee. Lake Michigan doesn't do this.

Lake Michigan also doesn't have coral reefs, tropical fish, and sea urchins.

There might not be a thing in nature less appealing than a sea urchin, black spines as clear signs they're best left untouched. They're novel from the shore, but old news in the deeper water as it becomes clear they're everywhere, from baseballs to basketballs, black and unfriendly.

I swam out, looped around to the back of the reef, saw a few pretty fish, but nothing new or exciting. I decided to head back in, through the middle of the reef. There were openings, a path.

But in the ocean, depths can be deceiving. Spaces are not nearly as open as they seem, and from the surface to the reef, what looks like a few feet can quickly become just one.

One foot to navigate the stinging brain coral and sea urchins and whatever else God has put there. I found myself in such a space.

Open water above me, my back and snorkeling tube above the surface, unfriendlies beneath me, no room to maneuver, no way to turn around, no space to get by, nowhere to put my hands, the surge of the waves pushing me involuntarily back and forth.

It is a scary thing to be in a space like this, water you can stand in, no apparent way to stand in it. In this, I understand panic. I understand claustrophobia.

That urge to panic comes, and you can accept it, or you can reject it as it wells up in your throat with the salt water. I pushed against it, kept as cool as I could and slid back. I spotted just enough space in the rocky coral to set down my feet and stand up and put five feet of me above the water and just one below.

When you have no place to put your feet, you have no way to shift your weight. So the small surge of the waves was just enough to push me over. I stumbled down and by some miracle found some urchinless real estate, millimeters from the spines of one. I've never been stung, and I was doing my best to keep it that way. I searched for another place to move my hand, but instead got back to my feet and took a few steps, quashing a few urchins under the rubber of my flippers, careful to keep them off my heels.

A few more steps, slowly, wobbly, patiently, shaking. Very soon, I saw a path in front of me. I slid down into the water, gliding cautiously over the coral and the urchins, to a narrow pathway back to the grass, back to the shore.

All of that fear over a few things with stings that are, for now, still mysteries to me. The ocean can get so much worse than a few urchins and coral. It's vast, scary, and people take lifetimes to learn tiny slivers of it.

This was enough to further deepen my respect for the ocean, but not enough to keep me out of it. I'll go again.

But ask me again if I prefer Lake Michigan to the ocean. No salt, no urchins, no coral.

I am definitely a Lake Michigan Man.

May 24, 2011

Unichallenge 2011

There was this event.

"It's a big deal," they told me. "People get, like, really into it. This is serious."

I had seen the pictures and I had heard some stories. I knew it on paper but - as with all things camp ministry - I didn't quite know what to expect until I saw the Unichallenge happen.

When I was at Grace, we created Mangames, a half-day competition testing the various aspects of manliness - among them strength, agility, wisdom, creativity, survival skills, the ability to put large quantities of food away in a short amount of time - all to crown the manliest of men on the Grace Adventures summer staff. Mangames saw a second official incarnation last summer and, I'm hoping, a third despite my absence this summer. I dream of international Mangames chapters. Maybe someday. All of that to say: I have a deep appreciation for skills competitions on the grounds of Christian camps.

Unichallenge has been happening here for a few years now. This may have been Unichallenge V, I don't know for sure. But it is far and away the most hyped thing we do. And with great hype comes great responsibility.

The problem with having responsibility for something you've never done before is that you inevitably leave out many, many details that you would never in a million years dream might be necessary. Everything works on paper. We planned our events with a few new ideas, and a few weeks ago got to work building what we needed. We did not leave ourselves adequate time to get certain things done. And so in the days leading up to Unichallenge, I worked some very long hours finishing big and little things, from building rafts and shields to tying up loose ends and picking out trophies. Actually, one event was finished literally minutes before it was put into use.

I don't know how much of this was evident to the participants of Unichallenge. All of our staff, despite all of our stress, sincerely believe that Unichallenge V was a success. People had a blast, and the feedback was all positive.

And this, I think, lends us a poignant example of God doing good and perfect things despite his imperfect servants. It's a beautiful thing that we are not solely responsible for the success or failure of our ministry. God does a marvelous job shoring up our mistakes and failures. Which of course doesn't give us a license to be sloppy, but it does remove some of the pressure to be perfect.

The whole point of this event is to get church groups to come together and compete, yet be unified. The focus is so heavy on sportsmanship that a team can win every event but not win the overall championship. After lunch they all spend time in community, praying, and at the end of the day, we have praise and worship time before we hand out the trophies. If nothing else, it's our hope that some bonds are formed that will last beyond the day, beyond the boundaries of camp, and beyond the life of a trophy.

That, and that there are no serious injuries, of course.

Pictures: (All from the opening presentation ceremony. None from actual competition.)

May 6, 2011

On Public Speaking

I got asked to speak at a church.

Or maybe, the program director at Campamento del Caribe got asked to speak at a church.

Or maybe, the guy who was sitting in that desk at that time got asked to speak at a church.

Either way, I was the guy sitting in the desk, the program director at Campamento del Caribe, the one in the right place at the right time.

Pastor Michael told Theresa he needed someone to speak for the National Day of Prayer yesterday. And since I was right there, he asked if I'd want to do it.

"Like, speak? For how long? About what?"

"About Prayer, dummy." (He didn't call me a dummy. But I probably should have guessed the topic.) "About 30 minutes. With someone translating, you'd need to speak for about 15 minutes."

"I... I guess so." I tried to stammer, to sound non-committal and give him time to give me a chance to back out. I'm not a pastor. I don't really speak, like a public speaker or a motivational speaker or a pastor or something. Only to crowds of 8 year olds in chapel at summer camp, and they're decidedly easier to impress than grown-ups.

He didn't give me the way out I wanted and when our conversation was over, I had pretty much committed to speaking to a crowd of grown-ups at a church service.

This is not the kind of thing most people go out of their way to do. Many people are genuinely terrified at the thought of it. And indeed, there were flashes of terror.

I would be lying in bed, in that beautiful moment between waking up and deciding to get up, when everything and nothing is fantasy and serious all at the same time, and I would think, "What do I have to do?" and the reminder would come, usually sounding something like this:


Does that sound panicky enough? Because it was panicky. And it happened pretty much every morning between when I committed to speak and when I finally spoke. It didn't last, though, and I'd eventually snap out of it. No sense in being terrified. You've got time. Man up. Get out of bed.

Some people have brains that can stay on topic, that can just pull a bunch of stories by category and fit them together neatly with a nugget of wisdom, and they make great public speakers. My brain doesn't do that. I don't know if it can learn to do that. It was my acceptance of this that led me to say: If I'm gonna speak, I need to write it all out. My mind wanders too much. In fact, at any given point in time, I am probably not paying any attention to anything. I think I have a screen saver or something that lets me think about nothing. So I had to think about it all ahead of time.

And so I thought. No, I didn't go to Bible school. No, I don't give sermons. No, I don't feel qualified for this. But I do have a set of experiences, which at least gives me something to say about prayer. So I wrote it all out, word-for-word. 2200 words worth, from "Buenas Noches, everyone" to the well-worded final sentence that adequately summed up my point and sounded very much like an ending. Starts and endings are hard. It's the middle stuff that's easy.

Of course, I wrote it all a few days ahead of time, so I had plenty of time to second-guess it. Is this me? Or is it God? Is this deep enough? Is this what they want? If I'm worried about being embarrassed or failing, does that mean I have a problem with vanity and that I'm not letting the Holy Spirit speak? In the end I decided that, unless God gives me something else, what I put on the paper must have been from Him already. I told Him that he could change it if he wanted to.

Last night, I spoke it. Spake it. Unto them. I even ad-libbed a joke at the start. The one about speaking to 8 year-olds. Yeah, already re-used it on you. It was that good.

Once you begin, you wonder what all the terror for public speaking is about. Forgetting your lines? Not having enough to say? If you have a piece of paper and can read it without sounding like you're reading it (I'm not saying I did) then you should be fine. Of course, that doesn't shake the curiosity of whether or not everyone in the audience is scrutinizing your every word, harumphing at your foibles (am I nose-breathing into the microphone?) and breaking down each element of logic in your argument (that didn't sound heretical, did it?). I understand on a much deeper level now why Pastors ask for amens. It pumps them up and affirms them. It shows that they're not just standing up there alone, appealing to a bunch of skeptics or, even worse, a bunch of bored church-goers. Don't be afraid to give the guy speaking an amen.

I have no idea how long I spoke for. Something like 30 minutes. Before I started planning it out, I wondered how I was going to occupy a half hour with what little wisdom I had. But it evaporates quickly with all of those eyes on you. When I was finished, people told me it was good. The pastor gave me a thumbs up. I felt relieved.

I'm glad I did it. I could have said no, could have backed out or deferred to someone else, but I didn't. Next Sunday, I'm visiting a church in Guaynabo where I have "1-2 minutes" to speak about camp. No problem for this guy.

May 3, 2011

No Conviction, by Peter Rollins

I came across this today and thought it was worth sharing.

No Conviction, by Peter Rollins

A parable about you and your potential future...

In a world where following Christ is decreed to be a subversive and illegal activity, you have been accused of being a believer, arrested, and dragged before a court.

You have been under clandestine surveillance for some time now, and the prosecution has been able to build up quite a case against you. They begin the trial by offering the judge dozens of photographs that show you attending church meetings, speaking at religious events, and participating in various prayer and worship services. After this, they present a selection of items that have been confiscated from your home: religious books that you own, worship CDs, and other Christian artifacts. Then they step up the pace by displaying many of the poems, pieces of prose, and journal entries that you had lovingly written concerning your faith.

Finally, in closing, the prosecution offers your Bible to the judge. This is a well-worn book with scribbles, notes, drawings, and underlings throughout, evidence, if it were needed, that you had read and re-read this sacred text many times.

Throughout the case you have been sitting silently in fear and trembling. You know deep in your heart that with the large body of evidence that has been amassed by the prosecution you face the possibility of a long imprisonment or even execution. At various times throughout the proceedings you have lost all confidence and have been on the verge of standing up and denying Christ. But while this thought has plagued your mind throughout the trial, you resist the temptation and remain focused.

Once the prosecution has finished presenting their case the judge proceeds to ask if you have anything to add, but you remain silent and resolute, terrified that if you open your mouth, even for a moment, you might deny the charges made against you. Like Christ, you remain silent before your accusers. In response you are led outside to wait as the judge ponders your case.

The hours pass slowly as you sit under guard in the foyer waiting to be summoned back. Eventually a young man in uniform appears and leads you into the courtroom so that you may hear the verdict and receive word of your punishment. Once you have been seated in the dock the judge, a harsh and unyielding man, enters the room, stands before you, looks deep into your eyes and begins to speak,
"Of the charges that have been brought forward I find the accused not guilty."
"Not guilty?" Your heart freezes. Then, in a split second, the fear and terror that had moments before threatened to strip your resolve are swallowed up by confusion and rage.

Despite the surroundings, you stand defiantly before the judge and demand that he give an account concerning why you are innocent of the charges in light of the evidence.

"What evidence?" he replies in shock.

"What about the poems and prose that I wrote?" you reply.

"They simply show that you think of yourself as a poet, nothing more."

"But what about the services I spoke at, the times I wept in church and the long, sleepless nights of prayer?"

"Evidence that you are a good speaker and actor, nothing more" replied the judge. "It is obvious that you deluded those around you, even deluded yourself, but this foolishness is not enough to convict you in a court of law."

"But this is madness!" you shout. "It would seem that no evidence would convince you!"

"Not so," replies the judge as if informing you of a great, long-forgotten secret.

"The court is indifferent toward your Bible reading and church attendance; it has no concern for worship with words and a pen. Continue to develop your theology, and use it to paint pictures of love. We have no interest in such armchair artists who spend their time creating images of a better world. We exist only for those who would lay down that brush, and their life, in a Christ-like endeavor to create a better world. So, until you live as Christ and his followers did, until you challenge this system and become a thorn in our side, until you die to yourself and offer your body to the flames, until then, my friend, you are no enemy of ours."