May 31, 2012

Unichallenge 2012

We do this thing here at Campamento del Caribe called the Unichallenge. It's a crazy, awesome, dangerous, energetic, and relevant thing. We put months of work into it and it wears us all out but we love it and I wouldn't change it. It's something we do really well, and I wish I could take credit for it but it started a long time before I ever got here.

Essentially, it's a full day of competition among groups of teens, college, and even older people who come from churches, schools, or social groups. On the surface, it's a competition, but I've begun to look at it more as a ministry, as a sort of lab, or scenario, or outlet, in which Christians are supposed to compete - and act, and live - as Christians are supposed to. We set it up, we plan it, we invite them. We kick it off with a loud, chaotic opening ceremony where each team gets to present itself. After that, we're all deaf, and we spend most of the day competing in the hot sun (or last year, pouring rain). At the end, we worship together. We don't really preach much. There's a little bit of explanation of what this whole thing is about and a few key points, but this definitely doesn't feel like church. In the end, it's the competitors that minister to each other. We're just... providing the environment, I guess.

I, uh... well... ya got me.
This year that environment included a 20 minute run, over balance beams, through tires, into the ocean.

And jousting in the bog.

And extreme gold rush. (In which two teams face off, having to cross enemy territory, retrieve their "gold" and bring it safely back to their side. Typically we play this with little blocks of wood. This year, we used coffee cans full of cement.)

And a Quest For Fire - a scavenger hunt to build a torch.

And an obstacle course.

And some extreme Steal the Bacon.

And some good old-fashioned AWANA games. (Just as I remember them - the bean bag toss, some relays, and Tug of War.)

It sounds cliche and corny, but it's not about winning the events. Sure, we give them a few extra points, and at the end of the day we crown someone the champion and give 'em a trophy. But the points come more from sportsmanship, unity, attitude, and spirit, than from winning each event. Actually, if you're out there to win at all costs, you will lose out in the other categories. You could win every event and lose the Unichallenge. You could lose every event but do it with a good attitude, good sportsmanship, and a spirit of support and positivity, and win the whole thing. Typically, the overall champion has a pretty good mix of friendly competition and athleticism. Sportsmanship is king.

In that environment, you always get a few people who miss the point. But you also see people who do it, and do it really really well. We always see teams stopping and elevating the needs of others above themselves. I saw one team in The Run carrying members of the opposing team to the end.

It strikes me that this is not only the sort of thing that rewards character, but also comes pretty close to the heart of college ministry. The competitors come in all shapes and sizes, but most of them are college age. People genuinely want to come and be a part of this. We had interest from 17 teams, but ultimately drew the line at 14. That's more than 150 people coming out voluntarily to participate, to endure a day full of crazy stuff to enjoy community, to have fun, to spend good time in fellowship.

College and 20-something ministry is elusive for lots of churches, I know. It seems like college ministry is either a priority and the majority of the church - which can alienate other demographics - or it's completely missing. It's all or nothing, it seems. I've walked into a number of churches where there's a gaping hole between the youth group and the young married folks with toddlers. I think some people think when kids go to college, they disappear from the church, or from the faith altogether. Some of them do. But not all of us disappear. We go to places where we feel included, where we have a chance to expand our social circles, where we get fed (literally and figuratively) and where we're engaged or challenged.

They/we want to see faith on display. A competition, like Unichallenge, appears to be a great way to do that.

May 27, 2012

Happy Birthday, Stephanie

Mad props to my little sister Stephanie on her birthday for heroically reaching number 25. I am proud of her. She writes good. But that's not why I'm proud of her. She has, I think, begun to find her place. She is growing into a woman with more sense and wisdom than I think she realizes, which affirms that she's got some sense and wisdom.

So Stephanie, welcome to the second quarter century of life. I suspect this is the best one.

I don't have my journals handy to see where I was on my 25th birthday. It was ]three years and some change ago. I can't really remember it, but if I did have access to the proper documentation, I would probably see that I worked a late shift at Papa John's or something. I think around that time I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, wondering why it was that I was still delivering pizzas at Papa John's and not slowly ascending a corporate ladder somewhere or adventuring off into the world somewhere.

Just a few months after that birthday I was standing at Papa John's, feeling old at 25, wondering if that was beyond the appropriate age to work at summer camp, when Ben called me and asked if I'd like to come work at summer camp. I told him yes, I would very much like to come work at summer camp again. So I did.

And that summer, I really did feel kinda old at 25 because most of my coworkers were in the first half of their collegiate education. Now I feel like 25 wasn't old, not nearly as old as 28 is. 28 is old.

But then I realize... someday I'll think the same thing about 28. I'll be 31 or 32 or something and I'll be like, man... 25 wasn't old. 28 wasn't old. 31 is old. But then someone told me that the 30s are pretty sweet. So I don't know what to think about what is or isn't old, so maybe you just don't think about it. I'm pretty sure the best way to ruin youth is to think about it constantly and worry about how you hang onto it. That's how you become old and crazy; how you get embarrassed about your age even though all you did was get born; how you become "best-friend parent" like Amy Poehler in the movie Mean Girls, which I'm only referencing because my little sister loves it. If I had seen She's The Man or if I listened to Butch Walker, I'd reference them too.

Birthdays after 25, I think, decrease in importance. They only matter every ten years when the first digit in your age changes. 26 is a lot like 25. 27 is a lot like 26. 28 is a lot like 27. I am less and less concerned with equating "what I'm going to do with my life" with "what I do to get my paycheck."

I've taken some kind of big, scary, weird step of faith in life each year since I turned 25. Went back to camp. Moved to Saint Joe. Went back to camp again. Moved to Puerto Rico. Stayed in Puerto Rico. Man, my life is weird. And I don't regret one thing about how I've spent my years since the big 2-5. I think this is what your 20s are for. It was A-OK for me, at 25, not to have my whole trajectory all mapped out.

So, Steph... Enjoy 25, it's gonna be great. It's okay not to have it all figured out. Live for The Kingdom, not this kingdom.

your brother,


May 23, 2012

The Ocean is Terrible; Skin is Amazing

(I describe some injuries, some bloody stuff here. If that makes you squeamish, you may want to skip this one...)

I have witnessed firsthand, a few times now, how dangerous the ocean can be. A few months ago, we took a group of guys from Tennessee to a beautiful spot on the Atlantic Ocean. There are some massive rocks there, jagged, formed by lava a long, long time ago. You have to watch your step, otherwise you could tumble and gash yourself real nasty-like. We like to go up there and watch the waves crash up against them, spraying up thirty, forty, fifty feet into the air. You can stand up high above them, at a safe distance, and watch the deep blue water churn and toss and crash. It gives me, as a Midwesterner, a great deal of respect for the ocean and how awful and deadly it can be.

Some of the guys wanted to get close and let the waves crash over them, like an amusement at a waterpark. But soon, the last of a barrage of three big ones crashed and surged, flooding down over the rocks, a fleeting, shallow river, just a foot of water, knocking most of them over. Some of them fell to their knees, one of them lost his footing and rolled down, his body tumbled over the jagged rocks. They cut him like glass and knives would.

It could have been so much worse. Luckily, these were tough guys and they mostly laughed off their scrapes, cuts, gashes like they were merit badges. We sat in the Walgreens parking lot and bandaged their wounds, horrifying the passers by.

Monday, we took a day trip to Isabela, to a beach called Montones. It's a beautiful spot, with the same kind of lava rocks, and a tidal pool where you can snorkel and see colorful fish and crabs, and only a few sea urchins (which I detest). It's a good place for kids.

The lava rocks are ringed by a flat walkway, where the water has collected into pools and flattened out over the centuries. It's like a boardwalk. In one spot, there's a gap where the water surges underneath and splashes upward like a blowhole. I went for a hike around it with John Cox, his foster daughter Lourdes, and Becky, an old friend and our intern for the summer.

As we walked, I watched the waves come up, small ones, gentle ones, rolling by, topping out just below our walkway. It seemed mostly harmless, but all along the way we walked through puddles of water. Soon, one wave rolled gently, barely above the surface, washed over our feet. It was pleasant. But as we went further out, the water really surged. It would rise to our level, then drop ten feet, then rise up again. If I were the type to get seasick, it would have made me nauseous. This was dangerous water - strong, steady, irresistible. It was not for swimming... to end up in the drink, as they say, would very likely kill someone.

Soon, the walkway ended and there was just a jagged cliff of rock down into the ocean in front of us and a steep hill up beside us. "I guess we go up and around," I said, and took a few steps up the hill while John, Lourdes, and Becky lingered on the flat spot.

It's weird when you have a near-death experience. I suppose some of them are immediately obvious, while others, the less serious ones, take a minute to sink in.

I stood there and looked down as one big wave rolled up from the ocean. It was slow and steady as it breached the edge of the rocks, and John, Lourdes, and Becky were suddenly standing in a swift current of water just a foot or two deep. With nothing to grab onto, they quickly lost their feet, and the water carried them determinedly away from me, back toward the edge. The ocean might just as well have had hands to grab them by the ankles. John immediately grabbed Lourdes by the waste, and the two of them struggled against the water, trying to sink their fingers into something to hold onto. Becky fell too, and I winced as I thought about what I've seen those lava rocks do.

All I remember is feeling numb, not so much scared, standing there watching these people very nearly get swept into what could have been their death. I think I saw it coming, I think I said, "watch out, watch out, watch out!"

John and Lourdes stopped just about a foot from the edge. Becky wasn't carried so far, but she got a fair number of scrapes, and I saw her sandals almost immediately 50 yards out to sea. They regained their feet and came up to the edge to inspect their wounds.

Down Becky's legs, a few trickles of blood had already started flowing. Lourdes joined me up on the rocks, remarkably free of any scratches. John had some minor ones on his legs. He's an older guy in his upper 60s, but he's active enough that you probably wouldn't guess it. Becky was missing her flip-flops, so John agreed to hand his off to her and make the trek back barefoot.

And then, as they continued to stand on the flat surface, another wave came up over where they were standing. This one knocked John over again, and Becky quickly fell too. I was close enough now that it knocked me off my feet, but I didn't go anywhere. I grabbed Becky's hand and held on as the water pulled at her. John didn't get nearly as close to the edge this time, but the tumble was enough to add some significant scrapes. As the water receded, they got to their feet and joined me a few feet up the hill.

Whereas Becky had kept her composure through the scrapes before, she was now wincing in serious pain and had a nasty gash on her knee. Julio later described it as "an open mouth," and I could see in just the briefest glance that it had cut through all of the skin, both sides open and thick like lips. She and John immediately scaled a few rocks and sat down at a safe height as blood from their fresh wounds trickled down their legs the rocks, a little red stream pooling up at the bottom. He took off his t-shirt and tied it around her knee. She didn't need to see it.

Soon, Lourdes was running for help, and I was left standing there, waiting for someone to come to help me help Becky, with my thoughts about all of it catching up to me.

I got to wondering how many different ways this scenario could have unfolded. Had any of us been standing near the edge, instead of where we were, it could have been so much worse. We could have been quickly tossed into the soup. I emerged from all of this with just a few scrapes, nothing more than what walking past a thornbush might do to me. John and Becky had to go to the Emergency Room for stitches, and a tetanus shot, and IV drips for some reason.

Skin is a remarkable thing to me. A few months ago, I had a nasty rash on my arm that came from something I touched in the jungle, I think. And you would have sworn by looking at it that my arm was disintegrating from the inside out. Jokes were made about leprosy, and someone else seriously thought I might have mange. Freaking mange. But this whole crazy battle on my skin was taking place on the outermost layer, the epidermis (that of "your epidermis is showing" fame). Everything underneath was unscathed. It took a while, but it faded into oblivion, and you'd never know by looking at it today that people were making leprosy jokes. And now Becky and John - with 26 stitches between them - have disgusting looking wounds that will simply heal themselves with the help of a little bit of string. It amazes me that our skin fixes itself, without thought, without medicine. Truly, we are well-equipped.

A lot of the time, when we deal with wounds, or blemishes, or lapses in judgment, or anything that involves a mistake, really, we feel a sort of regret that leaves us wondering what we might have done to avoid this situation. Could have stayed on the beach... could have stayed home... could have done anything differently and maybe saved ourselves a whole lot of pain... inconvenience... discomfort... embarrassment.

How could I have avoided this?

But there is another side to that thinking, the side that focuses on the grace, on what the hand of God hath stayed. Becky and John have cuts, but they weren't swept out to sea. We can wonder endlessly about where and when He's been good without our noticing, where He's intervened on our behalf to spare us, to preserve us, to bless us.

Just what did I avoid?

Maybe I'd rather not know.

p.s.: Here is a Simpsons clip that seamlessly integrates all of the elements of this blog: The water, the injury, the epidermis joke, it's got it all:

May 14, 2012

stress and dead horses

Please tell me that I am not the only one who does this. Last night I realized sometime around 2 am that I was stuck in some kind of thought pattern. Just thinking over and over again about pointless, stupid things, mostly logistics about work, about the Unichallenge next weekend. It was like my brain forgot that it was allowed to sleep, to do nothing, to rest, to take its regularly scheduled time off. It decided that this was a great time to fruitlessly attempt to figure out all the stuff that it has the next two weeks to figure out. This used to happen a lot more. Me, laying there in bed, not even realizing that I'm not sleeping.

Scumbag brain, won't even tell me I can't sleep.

And suddenly I realized that I wasn't sleeping, which was enough to break the cycle.  I got up, drank some water or something, crawled back into bed, and fell asleep. It actually used to do this a lot more and I don't really know why. My best guess is that it has something to do with caffeine or stress. I've cut back on the caffeine lately, but there isn't much I can do about the stress this time of year.

Somewhere in there, I dreamed I saw a dead horse on a roof. It was weird... weird enough for me to whip out my phone in my dream to take a picture of it so I could prove it later on. It's the kind of thing that must mean something. Then this morning my brain decided that 6 am - on my day off, no less - would be a lovely time to start back up again. I'm sure the "beating a dead horse" metaphor applies. But also, I really did see a dead horse by the side of the road the day before, and I wasn't dreaming. At the moment, I didn't have the time - or callous attitude - to whip out the phone to prove to everyone that I saw a dead horse. Because nobody here would really care, because it's really not a huge surprise.

And so I was laying there, in the early morning, hearing the waves crash into my back yard as they do all day, everyday, with my brain not-so-sneakily trying to get some work in. If I could remember what exactly it was thinking about, or if I'd made any progress at all, I'd consider trying to count them as work hours. But as it turns out, lost sleep doesn't count for billable hours.

I'm currently in the time of year where there's this huge cloud of undone stuff in front of me for our summer events. (If anyone has pointers on handling this kind of thing, send 'em my way.) One guaranteed way to add to the stress is to think about how I am the last line, the buck, as it were, when it comes to all that stuff. Generally, if I don't do it or tell/remind/delegate someone else to do it, it doesn't get done. Last year, as I learned my way around, lots of little things never got done because I never knew we had to do them and only realized them after they were missed.

One side of camp ministry is there are seemingly millions and millions of tiny details that need to get done. Stuff to move around, people to call, materials to get ready, ideas to scratch out, decisions to make. Not only am I trying to do all of those things, I'm trying to remember and record them to make sure they're not surprises to the person who succeeds me here once I leave. And they're all floating in my head, and on slips of paper, and on slightly more organized pieces of paper. This time of year, that workload of stuff is only going to increase. I'm learning what it means to be responsible for something, and the importance of getting real rest, and the difficulty therein.

But the other side of camp ministry is that the stuff that absolutely has to get done has a way of getting done. Everything else just fills in the cracks, non-essentials, details, which actually are the majority of the things that cause my stress, that keep me up at night. Or wake me up in the morning.