Time and The Telephone

Five years ago I became involved in a Christian Facebook group called [redacted group name] focused on discernment of false doctrine, exposing those who teach it, and understanding the implications of end-time prophecy.

Every day, at least several times, Facebook notifies me of someone posting in the group, someone commenting on an existing post in the group, and such.

Every day. For five years.

I remember the day quite well that the group began as an outgrowth of comments on the Worldview Weekend page and some social networking that occurred between the most involved commenters. I was sitting in my living room, having just started 8th grade, wondering how my birthday party would go the following week, with each of the two cats (both alive at the time) lounging around. It was a lazy afternoon and I even remember the initial ping when Facebook notified me that I’d been added to [redacted group name].

Five years ago today also happens to mark Hurricane Irene’s destruction along the East Coast, which killed around fifty people if my memory holds true and caused several billion dollars in damage.

I’ve been reminded of Irene approximately zero times since 2011, though I still remember watching Channel One News in the eighth grade as journalists documented the absolute havoc it left.

The contrast between the beginning of [redacted group name] and Irene comes in how long ago they feel. In a strange sort of nostalgic skewing, I remember, despite its complete insignificance in my life and in the overall narrative of the human race, that first day in the Facebook group more recently than I remember Irene’s touchdown. Two memories can operate on independent time lines, where events that occurred the same time ago feel eons apart until we force ourselves to accept that they happened together.

What causes nostalgic skewing? I would speculate that increasing the number of iterations between then and now would decrease how long it feels internally.

In his essay The Telephone Anwar Accawi tells the dynamics of his childhood village and how they change when a villager purchases a telephone. Throughout his essay Accawi addresses the flow of time and how it “didn’t mean much to anybody, except maybe those who were dying.” His descriptions of village life focus on time as notional, one day bluring into the next much like shades of yellow blur into shades of blue and somewhere between existed green, but none could say when. Accawi writes that

“in those days, there was no real need for a calendar or a watch to keep track of the hours, days, months, and years. We knew what to do and when to do it, just as the Iraqi geese knew when to fly north, driven by the hot wind that blew in from the desert, and the ewes knew when to give birth to wet lambs that stood on long, shaky legs in the chilly March wind. The only timepiece we had need of then was the sun. It rose and set, and the seasons rolled by, and we sowed seed and harvested and ate and played… We lived and loved and toiled and died without ever needing to know what year it was, or even the time of day.”

This lifestyle comes into sharp relief against the American society which Accawi’s family would later enter. Americans hustle. We rush to work, to meetings within work, to complete projects by a deadline (deadline as in: if you miss this date, you are dead). The mentality of punctuality is predicated on everyone knowing the proper time. In all, we posses an increased awareness of and sensitivity to time.

We’ve been conditioned for this since first grade. Elementary school children live from bell to bell and have no concept of education without segmented and mutually exclusive subjects. This became so widespread that teachers in my school were met with incredible resistance for attempting to require one essay from science class, one science problem consulted in math class, one or more science-based books read in reading class, and such. Each course belongs where it belongs, when it belongs.

When we pack our days with activities, they feel shorter. When we pack our schedule with six AP classes and sports here and church activities there, they feel shorter. 24 hours still exist in the day. Around 16 hours still exist in the waking day. Yet time moves differently based on the degree to which the activities in it vary.

Time doesn’t necessarily fly when having fun; time flies when segmented.

I’ve experienced this contrast in moving to college. Rather than seven class periods of equal length and a very regimented daily routine, I have two hours of class at random times in the day, with the rest left for an amorphous glob of activities called “studying.” The days feel different. Time doesn’t escape me. Rather, I can barely escape it.

For a final example, Accawi’s village uses a system of tracking years (when they think to do so) using natural events to set the time. One woman was born “shortly after the big snow that caused the roof on the mayor’s house to cave in.”

When did the big snow come? It came “about the time we had the big earthquake that cracked the wall in the east room.”

Accawi remarks, “Well, that was enough for me. You couldn’t be more accurate than that, now, could you?”

Reflection post about camp

This summer has ended, and with it ends my time serving at Camp Timber-Lee.

I’m going on a journey. Follow my bold text as I hike to find The Outpost.

I’m reflecting. Follow my regular text as I give some thoughts on the summer.

 

I just got back from doing laundry for the last time. The sun will set in about 45 minutes. I’ve heard vague descriptions of a trail to The Outpost, a campsite on the lake’s north shore. I’ve already searched once. Maybe tonight will be the night I find it.

In a matter of seconds the screaming stopped and the little footsteps began.

Seven campers approach me with subtle panic in their voices.

“We were just trying to scare it, Ross.”

My campers had thrown a large rock at a chipmunk to make it freak out and run away, but must have miscalculated the speed or angle or something. The chipmunk’s hind legs and lumbar snapped, throwing the whole animal into CNS breakdown. It flipped about and thrashed around in Jameson’s shirt, in which he held the chipmunk as a Kangaroo holds its Joey.

Never in my life have I been so, so without words. I suppressed a nauseous feeling…

Caleb Hays, a ranking staff member above me, happened to swoop by with a garbage bag to take it to the science center where the camp houses a number of rescue animals. My eyes roll. We all know Caleb isn’t actually taking it to the science center. The campers move on to the next activity.

A few days later I’m retelling the story to a staff member who works in the science center. To my surprise, Caleb actually did bring the chipmunk there, but they couldn’t do anything with it. They left it outside and it either ran away or another animal ate it.

Probably ate it.

 

 

I come to this bridge. On the east side of the lake, it connects the north and south edges. Spiders have spun webs along the handrails. I’ve been here before, and only past it once, in the dark.

“Set clear expectations and very clear boundaries,” we learned in staff training. “They need structure, clarity and direction in order to succeed.”

I didn’t realize the significance of this principle until I stood face to face with eight kids. In short time I found that they demanded something from me, and it wasn’t attention. They hadn’t been conditioned to seek that yet. They wanted structure, clarity and direction.

It was easy to extrapolate. My metaphor-driven brain wanted to push back: Don’t control them! Give them liberty!

Yet they are just kids. They still have ill-formed senses of responsibility and virtue, not to mention time management or self-preservation. They need boundaries more than I, the adult in the room, needs boundaries.

Perhaps to a degree this runs parallel with God setting boundaries and expectations with us in scripture, in some way. The OT Law functions as the very clear boundaries outside of which we will not enjoy life. The Great Cabin Counselor knows how to have a fun week at camp (life on Earth) and disobedience isn’t itself the only issue; you secondarily deprive yourself of that fullest week at camp. The Great Cabin Counselor knows best.

I was able to loosen the reigns with middle schoolers, and essentially there weren’t reigns with the high school group. Autonomy comes with maturity and freedom with trust.

 

 

This path would lead to where I’d expect The Outpost to be.
I’d like to go on this path.
There’s a tree down.
There’s nothing I can do about it.

 

Godly men have drifted into and out of my life. They’ve served as role models in a 1st Corinthians 11:1 pattern of informal, mostly unintentional mentoring.

Andy. Winston. Cory. The one guy who was in the Army and I hung out with like 4 times. I actually never heard his name. Ben. Mitch. Jack. Nick. Andy.

Some have lasted longer than others. Mystery man obviously coming in at the least, and Cory the opposite at about 2 and a half years.

So when Nate Urban started to stand out in my mind, I didn’t know what to say or do, I just let it happen. It was the opposite of faith becoming sight: I doubted my sight, meaning, I couldn’t believe the things I saw.

Where did he come from? There were moments in the summer that I genuinely thought of the Hebrews 13 metaphor of entertaining angels without knowing it. I had thought that that metaphor isn’t meant to be taken literally, but I recurrently asked myself if maybe it is literal…

Nate would come around and clean up the tables while I went back inside to get another Popsicle. Nate volunteered to 1 on 1 counsel the camper with Downs, and supported him with more enthusiasm than I had that week, even though I had 8 completely self-sufficient guys who made my week easier than it should have been. I’m sure that even then I complained 10 times more often than Nate that week.

He would always get random shoutouts from fellow staff but each time he slightly turned to the side, probably only a 15 degree angle, unnoticeable to most but enough to subconsciously signal that he isn’t actually comfortable receiving praise.

Standing around the watercooler telling watercooler stories, the rest of us would unhesitatingly gossip about the campers and the rest of the staff. But any time he was around and heard it, he walked away. But more than walking away, one specific time he went to his campers to build a sand castle with them. Dozens more anecdotal observations litter my memory.

At the camp farewell rally, after the worship set ended and we all said our goodbyes, I wanted to find him and explain how significant he was to me over the summer as a role model of Christ. All I could say was thank you before choking up. He went on for almost a minute complimenting me (!?) about how I encouraged the other counselors throughout the summer through dancing at chapel or though humor. No Nate! I wanted to compliment you! That’s why I came over to you right now!, I thought to myself.

More than anyone I’ve ever met, Nate knows that his reward is heavenly and not Earthly. Maybe he doesn’t actually know that consciously, but he certainly lived like it.

 

Why is there a bean field? Better yet, why am I in it? Have I left camp property? I have now walked alongside this field for at least five minutes…

Over a year ago I became involved with a youth group, having been invited to their summer camp. I knew nobody on the trip, but made friends and connections and started attending their weekly meetings on an ad hoc basis. The pressure to switch fully to their church was almost immediately present, but I entirely ignored them and came independently to my own conclusions. I would go to both my home youth group and this youth group.

Until, a few months in, they decided to switch the youth group to Sunday night, now directly conflicting with my other youth group.

[Pausing here: if you, the reader, did not spend your teenage years in the church, you might not see the significance of leaving a youth group. This matters, a lot.]

So eventually I came to the conclusion that it probably was within God’s will to switch churches, for a number of reasons, none of which will be listed here. I began to love the ministry there and deeply appreciate the style, tone and philosophy beneath everything they did. This all shattered, of course, in a single instance.

Our school’s Christian club was hosting an event that would present the gospel to the student body. I asked the youth pastor of my new church if he would speak. In my mind, and in the decision making process I’d assume a youth pastor would follow, this comes to an obvious yes- in what universe would a high school youth pastor refuse to share the gospel with high school students? I had several other speakers who instantly said yes. But he said no. It fell outside the mission and vision of the youth ministry, he said. This wasn’t a cop-out answer; the event legitimately did fall outside the mission and vision statements, and he explained them well. I have sincere respect for the man’s integrity. Certainly though, something was drastically wrong with the mission and vision of the ministry. This tipped me off to a larger problem.

Without glazed eyes, I noticed over the next month that the youth ministry was not actually rooted in the Word. A Bible story, usually from the OT, may be tossed in here or there to provide an example for the message, but never did the message’s content originate from and find support exclusively in the scriptures. In fewer words, the messages were motivational rather than exegetical. Don’t misread me; they were very, very motivational and successfully so! But long-run they did not matter.

Additionally the ministry would frequently go full meta. We would spend an entire meeting discussing things external to the actual content, like discussing number-targets for attendance over the next 6 months for 25 minutes straight and just not doing any teaching. These housekeeping style discussion are important, but nowhere near as important as the scriptures. In time, I found myself faking worship to fit in, I found myself feigning sincerity in prayer to seem spiritual, and everything seemed much less robust now that my eyes were open after eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

I still think that God led me to this youth group. But rather than having me take its messages to heart, I’m now thinking that God’s purpose was to demonstrate to me how not to run a ministry. A literary foil, thrown into my life just to sharpen the contrast between a ministry of the Word and a ministry of personality, of popularity, of vanity, of flashy lights and, metaphorically, flashy everything else.

So mid this summer, when I took a day off of camp and drove 3 hours north to spend the last night of their summer camp with them, I found myself more nostalgic than open to the Word, and at that point, it was all over. The people were friendly, but the relationships were barely meaningful and I’d grown tired of the farce.

It was a quiet drive back to Timber-Lee that next day.

 

Another staff member described a way to reach The Outpost by vehicle. Maybe I’ve found the path but I’m going backwards.

Xavier was a fun camper.

He loved our activities, never stopped questioning me during cabin discussions, asked me the name of every item in the buffet line and if they had peanuts (nothing we serve has peanuts), and wore the memory verse prize with pride (it was a pink unicorn bicycle helmet). He and his older brother registered together so that they both were in my cabin.

He also lacked some basic social and emotional tools that would normally help a child when they go away from home. Conflict resolution did not happen, and he would literally run from the problems he faced with other campers.

I can handle this, I thought. Just last week I finished reading Marshall Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication, and now have all the conflict resolution skills anyone could ever learn. And on top of that, I’ve lived my own life! Over the years I’ve gradually accumulated social intuition on how these things work.

Yet unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, when I would walk over to Xavier after he left the group and attempt to have him talk, I could actually watch him suppress his emotions. In his body language and facial expressions- the subtle brow-line depression, the crossed arms clenching tighter, both feet pivoting in the opposite direction of me. I asked “do you want to let me know what’s wrong?” He replied, with some force to the word,

“no.”

This happened at least once a day, on four separate days. The last time, I started my stopwatch as I was walking over to him. Four minutes and 30 seconds later I decided to break the silence. The usual responses came back. One word answers, even to open-ended questions that do not call for one word answers. A little bit of snap to that one word. Refusal to make eye contact. Prolonged silences.

The narrative ends there. In fact, I never made it past his emotional barriers.

 

This road tells me I’ve missed the path, and I’m at least a mile from camp property. Whoops. Turn around.

Generally a pattern has emerged among youth camp speakers. Usually they give a few irrelevant messages just to ease their way into the gospel, to space the intellectual progression of the topics out a bit. After a couple dumb talks, BAM!, he hits you with conviction of sin, and then BAM!, he hits you again with another angle on that same conviction of sin. The next morning would be general and unsubstantial, but that night would be the completed gospel message and a call to respond. Or something like that.

With Pastor Ryan, things were a little different.

His messages were aimed at children- rightfully, since he was hired to speak for a kids camp week- and he did a good job at using monosyllabic words, explaining theological categories without naming them, and generally simplifying the delivery without simplifying or eliminating the content.

But I started to get fidgety after a while. Wednesday night came and Pastor Ryan hadn’t left Exodus yet. I started to wonder: you’ve been on the runway for a while, when is this plane scheduled for take off? It eventually became apparent that he wasn’t going to share the gospel with them. Or anything remotely related to the gospel, or even that Jesus existed. He taught with precision, but not accuracy. These messages could have equally been delivered to a Jewish summer camp with less offense.

Broadly asserted, Pastor Ryan symbolizes to me any attempt at religious education or spiritual leadership absent the gospel. He managed to keep the kids focused by snapping at them and saying “now sit up straight and listen reeeaaal good, boys and girls” and even invoked an attention incentive with his strange ping-pong-balls-from-a-leaf-blower device, but in all he failed to speak the gospel into the lives of these campers. I can understand hesitating to hold a call-and-response time, reserving that for the counselors, but nothing of the content of his messages even remotely segued there.

This is the quintessentially Evangelical distinction between religion and relationship. Bethke would take note, and not positively.

 

 

I’ve never seen this green pond before. I had journeyed around the lake path once, but it was near midnight with just a flashlight and eight campers…

After day 3 of staff training, I went back to the cabin to retire for the evening.

I had spent my spiritually formative years in a non-charismatic church. Every spiritual influence on my life was non-charismatic. I listened to talk radio shows on discernment that would often bash anyone who believed in speaking in tongues as heretical. More so, I’d spent far too much time on the internet exploring the ideas of rationalism and empiricism the past two years. I still believed in God the Father, and definitely believed in God the Son, but in practice, the trinity ended there…

So I would describe myself as incredibly unprepared for the live-action introduction to faith healing that night. One of my coworkers had knee problems, which were serious enough to require surgeries and procedures and medication. Another of my coworkers was (I assume) a Pentecostal who had recently been to a revival-style conference in Los Angeles and seen some amazing things

He asked the other if he could pray for his knees. So I sat on my bed, half reading my book about George W. Bush’s third and fourth years in office, half watching them. Nothing happened. He asked if he could pray again. Nothing happened. One last time? Nothing happened. They awkwardly called it off- but just for the night, they agreed- and each went to bed.

Throughout staff training, it seemed like more charismatic counselors were always the ones speaking up. “I received a vision from the Lord of a waterfall…” “I’m just really feeling the number 8…” “I am confident that God is going to do great things [weird shrieking noise] in us this summer!” “I’m hearing a word from the Lord and the word is…” My skepticism reached a new high, or depending on perspective, a new low.

Midsummer I picked up a book from a booth outside Walmart for a few bucks. It was the biography of Nicky Cruz, a gang lord in NYC who got swept up in a revival movement and eventually surrendered himself to Christ. That revival movement, along with the ministry school he would later attend, fully affirmed Pentecostalism. In reading the book I gained more insight into the theology, the mannerisms, the tone and the expectations of charismatic churches.

It’s all new and unusual still. By default I am critical. But after this summer, maybe I am more open minded.

 

 

A campsite could mean cleared trees, so I look at the canopy around the green pond for any gaps. None. I check in my backpack for a flashlight in case this trek goes late. I must have left it in my room.

One night I conducted a thought experiment: I took a few extra dollars from my bag and asked a camper, “if you could have any candy bar from [the snack shop], what would it be?” I’d sneak away to buy the candy, sneak back to give them it, and repeat five separate times. Two of the five campers were in my cabin.

Without knowing, I had tossed a live grenade into my group. We returned to the cabin and the squabbling began: “Why did they get a free butterfingers?” “Why didn’t get something for free?” These were easy to ignore but eventually I couldn’t resist the theological parallel. I told them it was all a metaphor.

…Keep in mind that I had absolutely no strategy here. Referring to this as “a thought experiment” implies some intentionality, when really I was being irresponsible with my money and later a cool metaphor about God came to mind. Nevertheless…

They listened with more attention than 6th grade boys usually put forth as I described myself as the analogy’s God and they as the analogy’s humans. I had chosen some, not at random but for a reason they do not understand, and showed those select few favor that they did not deserve. They objected, predictably, saying that this wasn’t fair. In time I shifted the conversation into a discussion of grace, mercy, election, Romans 9, Romans 8, John 6, and they started to triangulate my point from my examples.

One camper (of whom I’d taken specific note earlier in the week for some subconscious reason that is difficult to explain) wanted to keep talking even as most of the rest left the discussion. For almost no reason related to the actual discussion he began telling me about having taken cookies from the cookie jar when younger (?) which led to an unanticipated transition in the conversation. A transition would be good, given that I was going no where with this.

I press in. With some exchanges that I now forget, the conversation eventually drifted to asking if he was still like that, or if things had changed. Blank stare. It took a while, but I explained the idea of conversion, that a contrast would exist between living for yourself and living for God, in the various ways that that is expressed, with some defining experience or moment marking the change. Pressing further, I asked him, “does that description match you, or not really?” He gives a vague answer that wasn’t specific enough for me.

At this point I’m far beyond my comfortable level of confrontation. I never press this hard. Mitch, is there any point in your life where you left that old way and began a relationship with God?  He answered, “Yeah, last night actually.”

Electric. The feeling when Mitch said those words was electric. I’ve felt something similar to this, but never to scale, always much subtler and less consuming. It took a good 30 seconds of just staring at him to refocus and continue. The night before we had shown the campers the Iodine, Water and Bleach devotional and in the discussion that followed, explained the good news of Christ, eventually offering a moment to just think and if they wanted, ask God for forgiveness and the beginning of a relationship with Him. Apparently, Mitch had done that.

I tell him that this is fantastic news (!) and that [exact quote:] the whole reason why Royce and I live in this crappy cabin and eat the same food every week and get paid not very much is to give campers like you the opportunity to begin a relationship with God. Since it was getting late, I basically just told him that I really wanted to pray for him. He gladly consented.

And so, sitting on my bed with this 13 year old, I, just for a moment, left behind my stuffy cabin, my tired feet, my noisy other campers and I entered the presence of God the Father. I requested of Him that He would give Mitch open ears to hear specifically how to grow in this new relationship. I thanked God that, for some reason, He had chosen Mitch & I from before we were born to have this relationship with Him. Then I basically just kept rephrasing these same two ideas. [I need to break this habit]. It was a powerful moment. Something external to us was present.

The kids go to bed and the narrative ends there. I didn’t think that buying an irrelevant butterfingers would later allow the Spirit to speak into him an understanding of his salvation the previous night, and to enter the throne room of the Father with Mitch under my arm. I didn’t even mean it to be a mind game or devotional experiment- I was just being reckless with my money in a quirky way. Alternatively, I was just following that still small voice, the subtle leading of God, and in this obedience came fruitful ministry opportunity.

I wrote in my journal that night: “I’m so unbelievably thankful to God for this ministry opportunity. Moments like these make $[my weekly pay] a week and long hours and annoying campers all worthwhile because I get to see, in real time, God work through me, an empty vessel, to reach others for Christ. I”m so happy. I love you Lord. Thank you for this moment. I have written it here to remember it later. I don’t know why you use me. But man is it incredible.”

 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth…

In some ways the summer exalted me. In the minds of my campers, certainly. In the minds of other staff members, at least those who communicated it to me and weren’t lying to my face, certainly. In the minds of some parents as they met me, certainly.

In great contrast the summer humbled me to myself. Several times the thought recurred to me: isn’t this exactly how God views you sometimes? When one of my campers unironically tried to swim out of the one inch deep shallow end for nearly five minutes, or the time a coworker jumped repeatedly on a picnic table and yelled hey guys, look at how bouncy this is! just moments before he broke the table and vertically cut his legs on the splintered wood while falling.

Jorge, a fellow counselor, described pride in spectrum distinction that I hadn’t considered. We either err too far towards self-exaltation or too far towards self-hatred. These are pride and shame. In the gospel, God sees us for exactly who we are, and when we also take God’s perspective, we arrive not at pride or shame, but exactly between them at humility. Self-respect, without thinking of ourselves too highly or lowly than we ought.

When viewing myself and my surroundings through this third perspective, I became better able to receive compliments and better able to receive criticism. Neither surprised me because I saw both success and failure in myself simultaneously and did not focus on either. In a real sense this may be the most significant thing I learned at Timber-Lee.

 

Look at the flowers. Look at the lake. Look at the sky. See it blur with the camera’s spin, the definition fade with the camera’s motion.

When Friday night came each week, I called my campers over individually for a 30 second (usually) conversation consisting of three questions. First, their given name and surname. Then, I ask them about their salvation. I used rhetoric to this effect: “This week we’ve talked about having a friendship/relationship with God, and that because of Jesus dying for us, all we have to do is ask him for that relationship. Then, it doesn’t ever end. My question is, had you already done this before camp, did you ask God for a friendship at camp, or is it all still on pause for you?”

This actually proved to be incredibly problematic. As I learned throughout the summer, kids often lack the theological categories necessary to answer this question, but nonetheless have aloofly listed to the gospel all week without knowing it. Many blank stares and “uh could you repeat the question” and then many more blank stares.

I’d compare this effect to Jesus’s teaching in parables, where those who had spiritual ears to hear understood exactly what he meant, but outsiders just heard random stories about farmers and pearls and leavened bread.

The final question is if they own their own Bible.

I am not sure what I will do with this list, and I’m especially unsure of what I will do with the last question given that I have no actual plans to buy Bibles for each of the 6 campers over the summer who said no. Perhaps my asking the question may have provoked the thought that owning a Bible is important. 

But I am sure of this: for William, Joseph, Amari, Wrigley, Jared, Freeman, Aiden, Nicky, Mike, Patrick, Colin, Braden, Luke, Mitch, Scott, Xavier, and Daniel, sometime real happened between them and God. They may not have the theological categories to express whatever that was, and they probably wont for a number of years. But the Holy Spirit is not constrained but human misunderstanding, and that first encounter between the individual and the Spirit marks the beginning of a continuous process that will never stop until death. For the 17 named above, my summer is justified.

 

 

The Zipline tower stands apart, as unnatural in its setting as the cars lining the staff parking lot, each anachronistic to the simplicity of the forest.

Old hymns and open Bibles filled the church weekly as a continuing confession of life coming from tradition, from ways past. The members at East Troy Bible Church saw themselves not as clinging to tradition, but as identifying with a heritage. Singing the songs they know and hearing the Word they love, the people at my summer’s church felt no pressing obligation to appeal to worldly outsiders.

I am by no means a worldly outsider- just an outsider to this particular church. In several weeks time I felt fully comfortable and now feel a slight pang from the realization that I am not coming back to East Troy Bible Church for a long time.

What a testament to God’s grace- his unmerited favor- that in the simplest of gatherings his spirit would dwell, convicting some hearts, encouraging others to persevere, reminding all of the life-sustaining presence of Christ. There was something extraordinarily pure about those weekly gatherings, as if the service had been designed explicitly distractionless, designed to induce self-forgetfulness.

I often find myself caught up with the medium of worship rather than the one whom I ought to be worshiping. Maybe this comes from my musical upbringing and training, but I usually cannot focus on God during musical worship. I rarely am able to focus on him anyway. Yet in this refurbished gymnasium in a small country church that contrasted in every imaginable way with my previous church, the environment was different enough for me to be mentally unconscious of myself and the music. I was not meta-worshiping. For just a few moments each Sunday morning, I had forgotten about myself.

 

The sun withdraws behind the lake’s far treeline and leaves a beautiful residual sight. A perfect gradient from the lume of light to the navy of night. Beauty rises from this simplicity; this simplicity rises from millions of individual complexities; in all forms God reflects to me his simplicity, his complexity, his beauty, his creativity.

Camp was over in a few days. I was tired and had a headache from when some random guy (who worked at camp the summer before) started screaming in my cabin at 3:00am on the top of his lungs. (Weird, long story). All I wanted was some reprieve from my the annoying campers.

The opposite came to me, in public fashion. The chapel speaker had put each cabin’s name into a bag and drew one to play a minute-to-win-it style game. My name came up.

It was this game.

Needless to say, I lost the game. Zero points on my side to 19 points on the girl’s team, and the boys were mighty ashamed of me.

This public humiliation was annoying enough, but I quickly learned that the more frustrating part of public failure is the eternal reminder of every 4th grade boy who thought it funny to say “shame” and point at me. For two consecutive days. The ghost of that headache returns even now as I type.

The feeling was hollow. Campers received more death-glares from me than anyone in my life has ever, but only when they said “shame” and pointed at me. I was a meme. It only took a malicious, unpleasant hey, who is your counselor? to shut them down. The implied threat of violence, here social violence through demerit and punishment, to resolve conflict. Far too easy. Perhaps that explains much more of national current events that it seems at first glance.

 

63 stairs separate me from Oak Ridge, my home.

The apostle Paul explains in Romans 9 the theology of predestination- that individuals do not choose their salvation, but God actively interferes to decide on their behalf. He makes an airtight argument, one later picked up by John Calvin and Associates, LLC.  in the sixteenth century as the foundation for reformed theology’s doctrine of Providence. (Side note on that here).

Now, call me a nerd, but an interest of mine throughout the summer was flipping through my campers’ Catholic edition Bibles to passages where Catholics disagree with the scriptures, looking for explanatory notes or inserted commentary. On Romans 9 the subject header in one camper’s Bible was “God’s Election of Israel.” This differs from my Bible, whose subject header reads “God’s Sovereign Choice.”

The implication was obvious. Rather than electing individuals to salvation, Romans 9 is a discussion of God selecting Israel as the people through whom salvation would come. Jorge and I discussed this one day after the chapel speaker had told the narrative of Esau and Jacob in Genesis 33 (Esau forgives Jacob) and I made an interesting anecdotal observation.

In Romans 9 Paul quotes an Old Testament prophet: “Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated.” Tracing back the reference notes to Malachi 1:2-3, and reading more broadly to the whole chapter of Malachi, this statement is made in reference to Esau’s and Jacob’s descendants as a whole, not to Esau or Jacob the individuals. [further reading]

So, this largely discounts much of Romans 9 from my Calvinist perspective. I can no longer say to any who disagree with me, well have you even read Romans 9? It’s right there! with all the condescension in the world. It’s apparently more complex than that.

My mind changed on an idea absolutely central to my theology. It took 5 minutes of processing some thoughts out loud to realize it.

 

I am home. I need rest to prepare for the journey that will be my week.

As we sat around the indoor chapel waiting for the Farewell Rally to begin, time seemed to slow down a bit. I liked the idea of that, and put my watch in my backpack to keep the lethargy going.

We worshiped. Not in traditional church style, with hands in pockets and mumbling the words while completely still. Rather we jumped, screamed, literally danced (we have preestablished dance moves to each song… it’s camp.), full well realizing that we won’t worship like that again until next summer or until heaven.

The staff had sung and awkwardly stood around a bit during the early chapels of staff training. There was tension, apprehension. Now the opposite. The contrast was unrealistic, ablaise.

Nearly two hours of announcements, closing thoughts, slightly contrived but mostly valid metaphors and tips for reentering the real world followed. In that closing worship set, it struck me in some unusually emotional way that my summer was over and that God had done work through me in the campers’ lives. It also may mark the first instance in my life where I cried long enough that I had used all the tears stored upfront and the remaining tears must have been stored back far enough within my skull to carry my core body temperature. They were warm. It was passion. I could not sing. It did not matter.

I said some goodbyes, full well knowing that I would never see a majority of these people again until I cross the glassy sea into eternity. With each goodbye I actually grew less and less aware of what was happening. It reminds me of the effect where something hits you several months afterwords, but in reverse, where my brain was beginning to table the processing of the moment until a much later time.

I drove home, bought some food at the nearest gas station, and drove home.

I drove home.

It was all over. One hour of driving home later, I was done.

I had driven home.

I was home.

 

 

I never found The Outpost, yet in my time at Camp Timber-Lee this summer I found so much more. In past years I’d found faith, I’d found friends, I’d found role models, I’d found time of celebration. This year I found all of these simultaneously even though I deserved none of it. Why me? Why should I of all people receive so much?

D.A. Carson on Providence

An excerpt from D.A. Carson’s sermon, “How Could God Allow Suffering?”

Here is the link.


I want to make two statements which I insist the Bible backs up again and again and again and again. I’m not saying that they are easy. But the Bible holds two propositions simultaneously all the time. They surface again and again and again. They surface in books of the Old Testament, that is the things written before the coming of Jesus, in the New Testament written in the time of Jesus for about a hundred years, these two propositions surface again and again and again.

Number 1
God is absolutely sovereign but his sovereignty never mitigates human responsibility.

Number 2
According to the Bible human beings are morally responsible creatures. (By that I mean we believe and disbelieve, we obey and disobey, we chose and so on, and we are held accountable for all of these things. Of course there may be many many things that go into it in terms of our background and our genes or how tired we are and whether we had a night’s sleep, and all the rest, but nevertheless, creatures who believe, disbelieve, chose, disobey, do good things, bad things). But all such moral accountability, all such moral responsibility never, ever makes God absolutely contingent. That is, it never relegates God to the place where he is merely a reactor.

Now the Bible holds that those two things, those two propositions are simultaneously true again and again and again. It doesn’t enter into long dispositions to defend them. Many Christians have done that in the centuries since the Bible was written. But nevertheless the Bible presupposes them.

Let me just give a couple of examples and you will see what I mean.

In the first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis, in the very last chapter, chapter 50, you come to a part of the history of Joseph, Joseph had been badly abused by his brothers. They were going to kill him at one point, then they sold him down into slavery, and in the mysteries of God’s outworking, eventually, though he was horribly abused down in Egypt, nevertheless the time came when he became the equivalent of prime minister of Egypt and helped to save his own family from starvation.

Now the father of Joseph and of the brothers who abused him has died. And the brothers are afraid that now that the old man is dead, Joseph is gonna take it out on them. He’s got power, he’s prime minister for goodness sake. So they go to him with this song and dance routine about how their father wanted him to be a nice chap and all of that, and Joseph says

“Who am I to stand in the place of God? Listen, when you sold me into captivity you meant it to me for evil, you intended it for evil. But God intended it for good to bring about this result at this time, namely saving many people’s lives.” Now notice what the text does not say: it does not say “God had intended to get me down to Egypt in a chauffeur-driven, air conditioned limousine, but unfortunately you guys mucked it up and as a result I went down there as a slave instead.”

Nor does it say “you sold me as a slave into Egypt while God was on holiday, he was taking a small break, he wasn’t watching at that point, but nevertheless he came back later. He was such a magnificent chess player that he moved some pieces around and eventually it came out to have a happy ending anyway.”

But rather in one and the save event, you intended it for evil but God intended it for good. That is, God is sovereignly working in this event but their human accountability is not thereby mitigated. They are morally responsible creatures but that doesn’t make God absolutely contingent, coming in on his white charger at the last moment, you know, singing triumphalist songs as he sorts it all out as the sun goes down on the west and the credits go up the screen.

That sort of thing is found again and again in the Bible.

[You know what, the apostle Paul never had to worry about these microphones.]

Perhaps the best known example in the New Testament, that is, the bits written in connection with Jesus’s life, is found in Acts chapter 4. In Acts chapter 4 the Christians are beginning to face their first whiff of persecution and they gather together and they pray. And in their prayer they go over the events that brought Jesus’s death to pass. And they say Acts 4:27 “indeed Pontious Pilate and the leaders of the Jews and the Herodians and so on, they conspired together against your holy servant Jesus and put him to death on the cross.” Verse 28 “They did what your hand had determined beforehand should be done.”

So on the one hand, the political factors that got Jesus into a kangaroo court and got him butchered was the result of quite frankly a conspiracy, a political conspiracy, human expediency, it was nasty human machination and the people are responsible for it. On the other hand you can’t really be a Christian and not see how central the cross is to all of God’s purposes right from the predictions of the Old Testament right through the events themselves and into the events that follow, that God designed the whole thing so that Jesus would die on a cross. You’ve got to see that the death of Jesus was not just a political accident, a minor mishap in a two bit nation on the eastern end of Mediterranean in the first century. It was something designed by God himself.

Yet even thought it was designed by God himself, that does not mitigate the responsibility of the conspirators who actually put him on the cross. In other words, although the Bible does not explain the mystery of providence (there are huge questions about how God’s sovereignty works with human will, and the relationship between time and eternity, and if this was another sort of lecture in another sort of venue in a PhD. seminar we could usefully explore some of those discussions together). But at the end of the day, what the Bible does do is insist that those two propositions I gave you stand at the very heart of any faithful Christian understanding of the mystery of providence. God is sovereign, but his sovereignty doesn’t mitigate human responsibility. We human beings are morally responsible creatures but that doesn’t mean God is contingent. And we live with those tensions and all the mysteries of how God in his eternity relates to us in our time. We live with those tensions until the very end.