August 25, 2012

Bona Fide Tropical Storm Isaac

When I first moved here in November 2010, it was the tail end of hurricane season. Hurricane Tomas had just passed through the Caribbean, and left a whole bunch of crap on our beach. I resented the cleanup, but as a storm-loving Midwestern boy, I was not-so-quietly hopeful that maybe I'd get to see one of them in my time here. With 2010's season having drawn to a close, I looked forward to 2011.

Last year, we did get a brief visit from Maria. The storm migrated north of Puerto Rico so I took my big, heavy storm shutters down and left them on the ground outside my bedroom window. That night, Maria grew a tentacle that dangled down and swept across Puerto Rico from west to east while the rest of the storm floated north into the Atlantic. As I was laying in bed, the wind picked up and sprayed rain through my windows and kicked around the storm shutters outside. Mostly, I objected to the loud clanging and scraping of metal on concrete at 3 in the morning.

The next morning, we found that the awning in front of our dining hall had been picked up and heaved into our playground. Boom, no more monkey bars. I picked up the storm shutters behind my house and took a mental note that they were to be kept up in any storm threat, lest I lay there and shudder in the mist and hear them clang around again someday.

I had missed out on Irene, which came a few weeks earlier while I was in Michigan.

And that was it for 2011.

So in 2012, by the middle of June, I was checking the National Hurricane Center website everyday, wondering what was coming, trying to get psyched up for a good storm, secretly hoping that I might get to see one.

Fast forward to August 23, 2012. Enter Isaac. He was born just off the coast of west Africa, and within a week had rumbled across the Atlantic and declared himself a legitimate Tropical Storm. (Tropical Storms in progress, for the record, have fairly detailed Wikipedia pages.)

With my time in the tropics winding down, I decided that a bonafide Tropical Storm would be A-OK. Less cleanup, less potential for death than a real hurricane, but with all of the spectacle of something as yet unseen for me.

There are no hurricane sirens here in PR, from what I'm told. I guess they'd be redundant since as soon as we're in a potential path, we're all talking about them and facebooking them and stuff. We get all worked up, and the night before they hit - by then we know if they're close enough to do damage - people pack the grocery stores to stock up on the basics. The paranoid, conscientious Midwestern boy I am, I was well supplied days ahead of time. Remember, I'd been watching since June.

The day before, we put the storm shutters up, and I caulk the gap underneath my back door where rain loves to seep in from even an average rainfall. I can only imagine what it's gonna do with a tropical storm. It's weird, you stand out there and watch the waves lap up onshore, and the sun is shining, and there's this impossibly humongous beast lingering just over the horizon, ready to mess up your world, and you'd never know it.

Then the big night: Nothing happens.

I wake up the next morning. and the sun is shining and the birds are chirping. I brew some sun tea. I would have done the crossword, if I'd had one. All of Puerto Rico has the day off, but we spend it in staff meetings as long as we have power. I check the satellite images, and the center of the storm is about fifty miles south of us, but we're well within its wingspan. Where's the storm?

By 3:00 pm, gray clouds are coasting overhead, and little raindrops are falling. The wind picks up, the trees sway, and soon there's an average rainstorm going on.

But it lasts.

And lasts.

The back half of the storm, it turns out, is pretty good. The waves kick up, splashing over the beach into our backyard. Soon, I've got a pond back there, and the Caribbean just beyond.

It all picks up. And the wind howls. I lay there and watch a movie as the rain comes down in sheets and the palm trees bang their heads like awkward teenage concertgoers. Eventually I go to bed with the wind blowing and the rain pelting outside my bedroom window.

In all, we get about 20 hours of big waves, strong winds, and a lot of rain. There's nothing really dangerous in all of it, save for the flash floods in some communities. We never even lost power. But: my thirst for a good storm is quenched.

And though all I dealt with this time was paranoia - and a some cleanup the next few days, I bet - I have to wonder how different this would be if we'd been in the middle of a real hurricane, one of those 110 mph affairs, not some minor tropical storm centered 50 miles to the south. My house sits probably 20 yards from the Caribbean, which advances a little bit each year on our property. It was nothing for it to wash up and fill our backyard with water and beach sand. There's a basketball court out there somewhere that crumbled into the ocean. If you go down the street into the barrio, you'll see uninhabitable houses at the sea-end of every street that have collapsed into the encroaching water.

These houses... they're not going to last forever.

I'm heading back to Michigan in a few days, weather-permitting. We'll just see what this guy does in the meantime. At the time of this writing, it has a 50% chance of becoming a tropical storm in the next 48 hours. My flight is Wednesday....

EDIT: Pretty sure that guy out in the Atlantic is going North.

August 22, 2012

"me" as a four-letter word

A good Christian book should give you a nice, solid gut-punch. If it doesn't, go find something else to read.

I just read The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness by Tim Keller (Dude, that's 99 cents on Amazon for the Kindle edition.) It's a short book - only 30-40 minutes to read it, but well worth it if you've got an e-reader. (Go buy it, go now.)

Keller argues, in a more eloquent and exhaustive way than can be blogged, that we shouldn't think too highly or lowly of ourselves, but rather we ought to just... not think of ourselves. Self-forgetfulness and all that. Humility, it's said, isn't thinking less of ourselves, it's thinking of ourselves less. Dwelling on self-esteem is fruitless. There's no need to compare yourself to others. There's no sense in considering how you're going to prove yourself.

For whatever reason, "self" has become a big, horrible word for me lately. I was convicted this summer as I processed our activities and reflected on them that there was way way waaaay too much me in there.

How did I do?
Was I ready for this?
What does this say about me?
How does this reflect me?
...What's next for me?

That last one, especially.

Do we all do this, or is it just me?

(See, there I go thinking about myself again.)

It's a natural tendency to view the thing that you're responsible for as yours. You're running the show. You're (sort of) controlling things. If you're not there, it might not happen. Consequently, you slap your forehead when you forget and pat yourself on the back when you succeed.

And then... It's kind of horrifying to stop yourself and realize that you're thinking about the ministry you're in as yours, and that you're aligning its impact and efficiency with your own, and gauging its success primarily on your own perceptions and feelings. The pressure and back-patting are healthy and relevant to some degree, but the problem comes when its the first thing you go to when you plan, respond, and reflect.

I am guilty of thinking of myself first, and it goes deeper than this ministry. It digs deep into my entire spiritual life.

Deep down, I realize that I am obsessed with my spiritual sufficiency and my spiritual progress, and that I view the world as my story starring me.

Man, all I think about is me sometimes.

"Am I growing closer to God?"

I no longer view that as an innocent, relevant, or even positive question. To approach it grammatically, I am supposed to be the object, not the subject. No matter how badly I want to build myself and prove myself, I am little more than a forgiven recipient of the love of Christ. I have no ground to stand on. There is nothing I can do, no progress that I can make, that can change the way God loves me. Even at my worst - especially at my worst - he would still send Jesus to die for me.

As such, if I have to accept that as true for myself, I have to accept it as true for everyone.

So I've got nothing on you.

And there's no sense in framing everything around myself. And there's no one in the world I've got any right to compare myself to or look down on, or despise, or withhold any of the entire breadth of the love that Christ has shown me. So I better get busy simply imitating the love of Christ, and get my eyes off myself.

I believe that this is a long-standing work-in-progress in me, to let go of myself. This will take some time, I know, and Keller's book was a well-timed read. I'm beginning to see this self-obsession manifested in a number of ways, not least of which is my writing.

I'm considering abandoning my mundane, daily journal, and significantly altering my approach to this blog. I don't want to write about me anymore. Maybe not for a while, maybe not ever.

August 13, 2012

Year after year

I did a little math with my free time while I was home in Michigan the last two weeks. This summer marked my tenth in camp ministry. That includes my first two as a Counselor in Training while I was still in high school, and the five I spent as a counselor / core staff at Grace Adventures, the one I was in Tanzania, and the two I've spent here in Puerto Rico as program director. And that's not even counting the summers when I just showed up for a week or so to handle an overflow of campers as a rent-a-staff.

Having thusly proved my credentials, I pretty much have this whole Camp Ministry thing down and should therefore be finished making mistakes.

Yes, well.

I remember a phone call I made to my old director before last summer, in the last few days before staff training. I asked him what I should do if I make a mistake. I don't remember exactly how he worded it, but he basically said that I should just expect to make a bunch of them and move on. While he talked, I was busy realizing how much I had just betrayed my own nerves and fears about being the dude in charge of a summer program.

Now that we've wrapped up our summer camps for 2012, I can proudly say: I made several mistakes and no one ever demanded my immediate firing, and things never came to a screeching halt, and summer turned out pretty great. After all, camp has a way of running itself.

Now that I say that, I realize I probably could have gotten more sleep.

But anyway. One of the reasons camp went well, and that it's able to run itself, is because we had a solid summer staff.

Seriously, though. This was a consistent and constant comment from parents, visitors, mission teams, and other staff:

"Your staff, man... they're pretty awesome. Like, seriously. I didn't expect this."

Okay, that's my paraphrase. But I heard it a bunch of times, and I swelled with pride each time. And I grew increasingly appreciative of the way our counselors showed up and owned camp like they did. Nope, they weren't perfect - like me, they made mistakes, too - but they definitely exceeded expectations. People don't expect a bunch of college kids to be able to handle this, to be this dedicated and this responsible.

But they're the hands and feet of the ministry, and a big part of the big things that God continues to do here. We've got a really solid crew of high-schoolish and college kids who come back year after year and do this camp thing better every time. They volunteer their time a few weekends in the fall, winter, and spring to help us with retreats, too.

When campers come, they expect to see them.

That, to me, is huge. There's a bond of trust, and a sense of community amongst the campers. We're blessed to have a lot of returners and a healthy mix of new faces who quickly settle in like old friends. Because many of them are old friends. The returners know when campers or counselors are missing. They have real relationships, amongst themselves and with the staff. Many of our counselors have been able to invest in the same kids and witness their growth year after year.

It's huge. And I think it's a huge positive for the ministry here at Campamento del Caribe.

So, mad props to our summer staff. Job well done. Keep it up, year after year.

(how about I conclude with an old, semi-relevant Audio Adrenaline song:)