Kentucky 2017 Mission Trip Blog – Complete

Some people have had a challenge keeping the blog posts straight so we re-ordered them. You can now read straight through from the beginning to the end without having to skip around. Stay tuned for the final few updates. God was GREAT on the trip and I’m excited to share the final details with you! Enjoy!

Greetings from SUNNY Manchester Kentucky!  It is Tuesday afternoon and the team is preparing for VBS.  This is the first time I’ve had a moment to catch my breath and begin to attempt to chronicle this trip.  If you haven’t been keeping up, please check out the facebook group (Outbound) for all the pictures Bill has been posting.  After this entry, it is likely that I won’t have time again to update you until Thursday afternoon.  Thanks for your continued prayers and support.

We’re Off! Saturday, June 10, 2017

It is hard to believe that the trip is finally here!  We have been praying and preparing for this trip for a long time.  I’m super excited to see how God works this week.  God is awesome and I’m sure He is going to do some cool things.  I woke up early and made it to the store and to the church earlier than I expected.  THAT NEVER HAPPENS!  I feel like I must be forgetting something or neglecting something.  The team showed up and almost everyone was there BEFORE the time they were supposed to arrive.  We loaded up…quickly and efficiently!  We prayed, said our good-byes and hit the road.  Our traveling went smoothly.  We were divided into two vans.  The church van (which is AWESOME!) was filled with folks who have been on a LeaderTreks trip before while the other van had those students who were on a mission trip for the first time.  I was in the church van with the “veterans.”  It was great to think back on past trips and dream about what God might do on this trip.  We certainly were able to focus our hearts and our minds in the direction of the Lord.  We traveled to Winchester for lunch.  We decided to stop at Cici’s pizza…and most of the students remembered stopping there on the way home from their trips to the Edge in previous summers.  It was fun to think back on God’s faithfulness and goodness over past Edge trips.  It certainly reminded the students that God is a big and loving God.  After filling up, we hit the road and made it to Lynchburg for the night without a hitch.

We arrived in Lynchburg at my best friend Patrick’s house.  He and his wife, Emmy, were generous enough to host our team for the night.  We rolled in about 330 and had time to relax and setting in before our evening of fun.  We played some games, chatted with Patrick and Emmy, and just got into the groove of being on a trip.  Conversation was easy and fun.  We laughed and smiled and joked.  In particular, the team LOVED their dog, Huckleberry.  Huck became an unofficial team mascot.  As the afternoon wore on, it was time to head down the street to the baseball stadium where we got to enjoy a minor league baseball game.  It was more time to enjoy being together and to put a little distance between us and “normal life.”  It isn’t that normal life is bad or wrong, but being on a mission trip means being fully present for the week.  In order for our team to be successful, we need to have our hearts and our minds focused on the trip.  Spending a little longer getting to the mission site certainly enabled us to do that.  The game was fun and we joked and laughed and had a good time.  The highlight for me was spending time with Patrick and Emmy and catching up on life with them.  The highlight for the team was getting to watch an incredible sunset and then fireworks.  They even allowed us to go down on the field and sit in the grass in the outfield.  It was a very good show and a wonderful way to cap our first night out.

Once we returned to Patrick’s house, we had our first team time meeting.  We spent some time looking at passages in 1st and 2nd Peter.  We talked about humbling ourselves because God LOVES us.  It was a great time of sharing and talking.  We even spent some time determining what type of a team we wanted to be.  We threw out a lot of different things we wanted to be or do as a team.  Then we had everyone vote on their top 3 (there were 20 options!) to see where the heart of the team was.  We ended up with the following statement:  we aspire to be—a loving, humble and authentic community driven by Scriputre that exhorts one another to represent Christ.

We closed with some worship and headed to bed.  One thing that I’ve noticed about this team…they can sing!  What a joy it was to hear their voices praising the Lord.  They sang loudly and with heart.  It was great!  Everyone went to bed with joy in their hearts and thankful for God’s love and the great fellowship we had shared for the day.

In the morning, we woke early to donuts, scarfed them down, loaded up and hit the road.  With Lynchburg in our rear-view mirrors, our hearts and our sites were set firmly on Kentucky!

Goodbye Lynchburg, Hello Manchester – Sunday, June 11, 2017

The drive Sunday was smooth and easy.  We had guys in one van and gals in the other.  We hit up some Zaxby’s for lunch and everyone was able to eat their fill.  It really made the trip feel real…it seems like I only get to eat Zaxby’s when I’m on mission trips down south with the youth!  After lunch we headed to a local park for a time of worship.  Originally we had planned to take the chicken to the park and eat and worship in order to save time.  However, we decided to eat at the restaurant and then head over.  This turned out to be a blessing.  As we pulled into the parking lot at the park, I got a text from Kayla, our LeaderTreks trip leader, asking us to arrive a little later than our originally intended time.  How perfect!  Instead of feeling like our worship time needed to be rushed or curtailed, we were free to let God lead.  What was intended to be a shorter break turned into several worship songs and a great time with the Lord.  We found a shelter on top of a ridge that was overlooking a lake.  It was beautiful.  After a bit, another group came to use the shelter (they had reserved it earlier but we didn’t know and there were no postings indicating it was reserved).  We gladly moved our time of worship down the hill a little bit under a tree…we still had a great view of the lake.  It was a sweet time of connecting with God and singing with each other.  I was again impressed with the vigor and effort behind the singing!  It was a great time with the Lord and really focused our hearts towards the mission ahead.  We still had a couple of hours of driving to go, but after that time of worship, it flew by!  In the guy’s van, we spent the time listening to Christian music and having great conversations.

The last part of the drive, through VA, Tenn, VA, Tenn and Kentucky was beautiful.  The sky was clear and the foliage was rich with life.  As we traveled into the mountains and began to see mountain creeks and even some cliff faces, I was reminded of how beautiful this part of the country is.  Everything was lush and green and alive!  I couldn’t help but think about God’s abundance.  The drive was smooth and uneventful.  The new church van hummed right along.  It rode well and felt comfortable and smooth.  Surprisingly, it gets good gas-mileage and doesn’t have a huge tank.  With the lower gas prices, we’ve been  filling up for FAR less than I had anticipated.

It didn’t hit me how “out there” we were until I tried to send Kayla an update text.  I wanted to let her know we were 10 minutes away according to the gps.  However, when I tried to send the text, it failed to send due to lack of service.  That was the moment that it “got real” to me just how out here we are.  As we rounded the corner and turned onto the “main” street of the “budding metropolis” of Manchester Kentucky, we knew we had arrived.  A couple more turns and we found ourselves pulling into the parking lot of God’s closet, welcomed by a smiling and familiar face.

Manchester, LeaderTreks, and Old Friends – Sunday Evening, June 11, 2017

Kayla Costley is our trip leader from LeaderTreks.  She’s also the trip leader from our trip to Chicago last summer.  It has been a unique and fun experience preparing for a trip with someone that I already know.  Let me give you a little background into our relationship with LeaderTreks and how things work.

Typically I will talk with Dan, the director of partnerships in the LeaderTreks office.  He and I will talk about how things are going with our youth group and with the church and with me personally and we will decide together on what trip or trips would be best for our team for the upcoming summer.  Based on what they have available, what works in our schedule, where our group is at and where it is heading, and where we think God is working, we begin to shape a trip experience and to dream about what God wants to do.  The preliminary planning begins, details are hammered out and a trip is born.  Planning and logistics and early preparation begin on my end and LeaderTreks continues to put together a summer plan and beings to prepare their leaders.  At some point, I will get an email or a call from Dan and he will introduce me to our trip leader for the trip.  This is the LeaderTreks staff person who will be in charge while we are on site.  Typically, I’ll get in touch with that individual and begin to dream with them about what God wants to do.  Although we have a great relationship with LeaderTreks, the first step in this dreaming process usually involves the same song and dance.  It goes like this:  “hi, I’m the leadertreks staff person, let me tell you about myself.” “Hi, I’m Joe, let me tell you a little about myself.” “I’m super pumped about God and about this summer.  Let me tell you a little about how I approach ministry and let me show you what type of a trip leader I’m going to be when we meet.”  “Me, too.  Let me show you how I like to think about ministry and let’s hope we connect and think about things in a compatible way!”  “Awesome, well let’s talk about paperwork and logistics and other boring details because I still don’t know if I can really trust you to do all this stuff and it has to be done.”  “Yeah, I know this, it isn’t my first rodeo, but we can only get to know each other so much on the first call.”  “Super cool!  I’m really pumped about this summer.”  “Me too.”  “Let’s talk again soon.” “Ok bye.”  We talk several more times about the trip and about the team and begin to establish a relationship and get to know each other.  Much of the conversation is generic and general and only tailored to our specific group to a degree.

Now I should stop here and say that I LOVE our relationship with LeaderTreks.  They are AWESOME!!!  I love the fact that I can call the office and anyone who answers will know who I am.  I love the fact that I KNOW they pray for me and for our students on a regular basis.  I love the fact that they go to every effort to make each trip unique and tailored to the needs of my group.  I love the fact that they involve me in the planning and dreaming process.  I can’t say enough about what they do.  I don’t want to paint a negative picture about the pre-trip experience.  It is a necessary song and dance.  You can’t REALLY get into the nitty gritty of ministry with someone until you are in the trenches with them.  LeaderTreks does a great job of establishing relationships with their trip partners and doing everything they can to ensure success.  Their preparation and planning is EXCELLENT and I have ALWAYS had a remarkable experience with them.  If you are in youth ministry, I HIGHLY recommend checking them out.

This summer trip preparation has been SO different.  Instead of having to spend valuable phone time feeling each other out and getting to know each other, Kayla and I were able to spend time catching up on what God has been doing in our hearts and in my students’ hearts.  We’ve been able to pray together and dream together more than normal.  We’ve touched on details and logistical necessities, but in a way that has been tailored and directed towards our team.  Kayla knows me.  She knows how I approach ministry.  She knows what I mean when I say certain things.  She knows our kids.  She knows what God has done in their hearts.  She understands the dynamics I’m dealing with and how the students respond to me and how they will respond to her.  I feel like I’ve entered into the 2nd week of a 2 week trip by having a previous relationship with my trip leader.  It’s been awesome!

Pulling up to God’s closet and seeing Kayla was like driving up to Patrick’s house and seeing Patrick.  It was like being welcomed by an old friend.  I (and many of the youth) was immediately put at ease and ready to jump in.  And jump in we did!

Manchester Kentucky is located in Clay county Kentucky, one of the poorest counties in the entire country.  Driving around “town” it is easy to see.  Housing and infrastructure are so  different from home.  We have learned that this area has been battling hopelessness and drugs for a long time.  Pastor Ken, the Pastor of the church here, has shared about his vision and what God has been doing.  It has been great to see.

I’ll try to share more about Manchester and what has been going on here later, but VBS is wrapping up and I still need to update you on what has happened since we’ve been here!

Day 1, Finding our Groove – Monday, June 12, 2017

We are on a LeaderTreks trip.  That means early mornings and hard work.  Youth were up an preparing breakfast at 6:30 so we could be eating by 7:15.  We have had great food and have seen the youth step up in cleaning and cooking so far.  They have joyfully made sandwiches to eat later at the jobsite and settled in nicely to morning devotionals.  Each morning we had 45 minutes of time dedicated to spending with the Lord.  During that time, we have a Bible study, a prayer journal, and a personal growth journal that we complete.  These tools allow us to focus on the Lord and grow in our relationship with Him and with each other.  We quiet our hearts and prepare for the day.  It is precious, precious time.  After devos we load up and head to Miss Reba’s house.  She is the sweetest lady and the one we get to serve through our work project this week.  We are rebuilding her handicap access ramp so she can more easily access her home.  Lots more about the details about the project will be forthcoming, but for now, we’ve removed the previous ramp, charted the course for future success and begun construction on her new ramp.  I can’t wait to share more with you about what has happened….but that will have to wait.

Please know that everyone is healthy and doing well at this point.  Corinne was a little under the weather on Saturday night and Sunday, but has completely recovered since getting here and is doing great.  Miguel has been recovering from wisdom teeth removal and has had some pain and swelling, but is managing it well.  Everyone else is doing great.  My back is holding up remarkable well and hasn’t been an issue to this point.  We have had positive moments as a team and some good spiritual growth.  There have been times where focus has waned and we’ve had to redo several things that weren’t done with excellence (VBS practice was rough and our heart attitudes and urgency haven’t been where they need to be) but overall the team is doing well and having a very positive experience.  I look forward to sharing a little more about the spiritual growth we’ve seen.  Stay tuned!

Prayer Requests

  • Pray for health and hydration. We saw a youth from another church/group suffer a heat/dehydration/exhaustion induced seizure yesterday.
  • Pray for physical health and wellness, especially my back.
  • Pray for our VBS efforts and ministry—it went VERY WELL today!!!
  • Pray that God would work in our hearts and would convict students. We have many who want to be 100 and aren’t (more on that in the next edition!)
  • Pray that God would be glorified in our attitudes and interactions
  • Finally, pray for our upcoming package shipment. Kristen and I have prepared something for the team and then managed to leave the supplies we needed in the youth room.  These supplies are special order and can’t just be picked up at wal-mart.  We have new ones ordered and they are being sent here, but getting mail here typically involves a PO Box and we had to ship it to a physical address…so please pray that things work out for our package to arrive and we get what we need without too much craziness!

 Update: Friday Morning

Rescue, Romans and Miss Reba — Day 1, June 12, 2017

Manchester is an interesting little town.  There isn’t a lot here, but there is always a lot happening.  Everywhere we’ve been, we’ve seen lots of people.  Wal-mart (which I’ve visited several times) is always hopping.  There are cars and traffic on the roads constantly.  But there just isn’t much around.  We’ve learned some shocking things about the area.  Clay county is one of the poorest in the country.  There simply isn’t infrastructure or opportunity.  We’ve also heard a shocking statistic about the kids in the region…that over 50% of the kids here don’t live with either biological parent.  They are either in foster care or living with grandparents or aunts and uncles or other relatives.  Our conversations with kids have confirmed this fact.  That makes our work here seem that much more urgent.  People need help and love and encouragement wherever they can find it.  Except maybe for Miss Reba…

Miss Reba is a GEM.  She has lived in her house for over 60 years!  She is as sweet as can be and loves the Lord with all her heart.  She has shared with our team how she hasn’t really ever faced anything bad or challenging because whatever she’s had to go through, God has been with her.  It is a JOY to get to serve her.  Our project this week to serve her is to build her a new handicap ramp to access her house.  She uses a walker to get around and her previous ramp was pretty steep and had a several inch lip at the bottom that made it difficult for her to get up and down it.  So far that has been a fun challenge.

To say that day 1 on the worksite was a challenge would be an understatement.  In fact, by the end of the day, we had only completed 1 noticeable task…unhitching the existing ramp from the porch…that and avoiding the resident wasp who was living under it.  The kids have dubbed her “Big Bertha.”  She is now dead Bertha…but created much ado throughout the day.    So as of now, all we have to show Miss Reba for our efforts is an old ramp that doesn’t really serve its purpose but is no longer secured to the porch and a dead wasp.  Despite the apparent lack of progress, today on the worksite was actually very positive.  We did a lot of planning and had a lot of good team work.  We worked consistently but could certainly improve.  We haven’t done anything poorly, but we haven’t done anything with excellence either.  It feels like we are spinning our wheels as we work, trying to get into the groove and get traction.  As an example, we began to string up guide lines to determine the path of the new ramp…but didn’t complete the task and had to remove the work we had begun in order to put the old ramp back in place temporarily at the end of the day.  It was somewhat discouraging.

After the worksite was done, we headed over to the local splash pad and park.  The kids got some instruction and broke off into teams to begin planning for VBS.  As they worked, I headed to Wal-mart to pick up some needed supplies and then the team texted me what they needed for VBS for the week and I was able to pick them up too.  By the time I had returned, it seemed like the team had turned a corner.

When I got back, everyone was in the groove.  Some people were sitting and chatting while others were putting the finishing touches on a skit rehearsal.  Once it was done, it was time for one of my favorite parts of a trip…VBS practice run!  That is when the students run a mock VBS with the adults acting as their kids.  We get to run around, act goofy, and give the kids a hard time.  It’s my chance to get them back for all the things they get me with all year!  When they give incomplete instructions, I find the hole in them and exploit it.  “Turn around” and I start spinning in a circle.  “Go over there” and  I run across the field until they tell me to stop.  Sometimes, students say or do things they don’t intend to and we make sure they never live it down!  This year, Seth promised the adults a T-bone steak if we were good and showed back up the next day for VBS!  Kayla, Kristen, Bill and I had a blast making it challenging for the students!  We didn’t know that God was about to do something cool for our team.

As Bill and I goofed around and Kayla and Kristen pretended to be inseparable best buddies, we saw students step out and shine.  In particular, Corinne and Seth (two first time trip members!) really stepped up and showed patience and love to us.  They engaged us and did a WONDERFUL job.  After the first run-through, we debriefed the experience and decided to try again.  We needed to see more engagement and participation from the team when they weren’t “in charge.”  The students were broken into teams who were responsible for certain aspects of the VBS.  The problem was that when the craft team was doing the craft, the rest of the team was too passive.  When the skit team was doing the skit, the rest of the team was disengaged.  When the  games team was playing the games, the rest of the team weren’t completely bought in.  Round 2 however, was completely different.  Despite the heat and the exhaustion we were feeling, they pushed through and did a MUCH better job.  You could tell that they were proud of the fact that they had improved and that they felt they would be able to handle a successful VBS.  We still weren’t there, but were moving in the right direction.  The team took a break to cool off and regroup and decide what was next.  While we were transitioning, we witnessed a youth from another church group, Zack, experience as seizure.  It was a scary situation.  Praise the Lord that Kayla is trained in first aid and as a wilderness first responder and that there was another lady at the splash pad with knowledge as well.  Our leaders were able to help the leaders from this other group as they tried to figure out what to do.  Bill and Jon prayed with some of their leaders.  In the end, Zack was able to get into their van and we found out later that by the time he was back to their camp, he was more stable.  By the time we ran into them the next afternoon, he was back to his joking and jovial self (he hadn’t made it back to the park that day and was still resting, but was doing better).  After the group left, we returned to the shelter.  Many of the onlookers at the splash pad wanted to know exactly what had happened and we had a chance to reassure them that Zack would be ok.  Then we gathered as a team and spent a few minutes praying for Zack and the group.  It was a great chance to witness to the folks around us and to proclaim the name of Jesus to them.  We left the park that day tired from having worked hard and been out in the heat for so long, but encouraged at the potential for the rest of the week.  There was certainly a sense that this team could do some great things and that is encouraging.  I believe that the kids believe in themselves as well.

Our day ended with a team meal and a good team time.  We talked about how God has rescued us and what our response is in light of that.  We shared about our studies in Romans and really enjoyed our bible study time.  In fact, I got really excited and passionate about the passage (Romans 5) and couldn’t keep myself from getting really worked up.  The youth always tease me when I get like that…I just can’t help myself sometimes!  When I get carried away, I always wonder if what I’m saying impacts the students or if it falls on deaf ears.  I’m praying tonight that it was the former.

All in all it was a good and typical first day on a trip.  We struggled at times to get going and get traction on this, but as the day wore on, we found more and more of a groove and it is clear to see our team’s potential.  I’m seeing the theme and importance of God’s love coming up over and over again and I’m wondering if that will be a theme for the trip…time will tell.

Prayer Requests

  • Please pray for our urgency and our focus. We aren’t working consistently and hard.  We have spurts but need to sustain it.
  • Pray or our respect and team dynamics. We struggled at times today with talking over each other or not listening when other people were talking.  We can love each other better.
  • Pray for the heat and our strength and energy…it has been hot. We are trying to stay hydrated.
  • Pray for the people of Clay county and of Manchester. They have a lot of love to share.

Updated Friday Evening

What is Happening Here?! – Day 2, June 13, 2017

A calling into youth ministry is a calling into the unexpected.  You just never know what God has in store for teenagers and you really never know how they are going to respond.  Often, just about the time that I feel like I have an idea of where things are going and what is about to happen next, God shows up and turns things on their head.  It usually results in something far better than I was envisioning and certainly better than anything I could have planned and orchestrated.  This seems especially true on mission trips.  There can be days where things are uneventful and routine and then there can be days like today.  When those days come, I’m usually left shaking my head, incredulously asking “What is happening here?!”  Buckle up.

Today we started out with a hearty breakfast and headed off to devo time to study 1 Peter 2.  It happens to be one of my favorite passages.  As I spent time in the Word, it was easy to see that God had something special in store for the day.  Things were just popping off the page for me.  Each day we spend time in the word and we are working through a trip booklet based off of discipleship material we’ve used in the past.  The devotional, Rooted, looks at several key roots of the Christian faith.  We’ve already looked at Rescue and how we all need to be rescued.  Today the theme was identity.  As I studied this morning, it was clear that God had a lot to say to our team about our identity.  After an encouraging and exciting devo time, we headed off to the worksite to spend the day with Miss Reba.

We spent the day divided into three teams.  One team was working on building and leveling a platform.  The second team was planning how the structure and decking would be put together once we were ready.  The third team got to spend the day inside, learning from Miss Reba.  The platform team and the planning teams worked very hard.  By the end of the day, we had completed and leveled a 4 ft square platform.  It was perfectly perpendicular to the existing porch, 24 feet away.  This platform provided what the team needed.  Previously, we had struggled to design and make decisions about the ramp because everything was theoretical.  Now that the platform is in place, we have something to work from and have a path we’ve chosen.  Time will tell if we have chosen the correct path or not, but at least we can move forward.

The two highlights for the worksite time both involved relationships instead of work.  The Miss Reba team had an incredible day listening to hear stories, learning from her, sharing about themselves and just hanging out.  Miss Reba is 82.  She has lost her husband and son.  She loves the Lord and shares that love with everyone who will listen.  The team inside for the day had a BLAST.  The other great point for the day came at lunchtime.  We were asking intentional questions all day and sharing deep answers with each other.  At lunchtime the conversations really were honest and deep.  The question that really sparked the conversation was “when did you KNOW you were a Christian?”  There were lots of great answers…many that included “it was my X year at the Edge, on commitment night.”  That is super encouraging for me to hear…to know that the things we’ve exposed our youth to in Outbound have been impactful and formative.  As people shared, a couple in particular took big risks and opened up about doubts and emotions.  It really set the tone for the rest of the day.

I also got to take another run to Wal-Mart this morning.  My air-mattress is slowly deflating each night.  I’m not sure why, as I’ve never had issues with it in the past.  It isn’t completely flat by the end of the night, just really, really squishy.  If it had continued to act like it was, I was going to have issues with my back for sure…so off to Wal-Mart I went in hopes of finding a new, better air-mattress!  While I was there, I also decided to invest in a canopy for our team.  The sun has been brutal and has made working on the ramp a challenge.  Perhaps having a shaded area will help the team.  I enjoy my Wal-Mart adventures.  It really gives me a chance to experience the true Clay county.  After a successful trip to Wal-Mart (I got an air mattress, a canopy, and some freeze pops for the VBS on Thursday) I stopped by the grocery store and picked up some Italian sausage to go with the spaghetti we were having for dinner that night.  I’m not sure why, but I just felt compelled to care for my team and provide as many little perks as I could today.  Those little things really do make a huge difference!

By the end of the worksite time, we didn’t have a ton to show for our efforts, but we were certainly set up for future success.  Hearts were primed with the Spirit and the platform was done.  Things were certainly about to take off.

From the worksite we headed off to the park for VBS.  It was a hot day and was SO much fun.  I wish I hadn’t been blogging and could have participated.  All the time I was writing the blog I could hear giggles and laughter and squeals of joy.  It was by FAR the best VBS I’ve seen our group run on a LeaderTreks trip.  Every student was engaged and joyful and helping with the kids.  There were smiles and laughter and seemingly no fear.  Students were taking the initiative and stepping up in big ways.  It was SO neat to see our team come together.  It was clear that the VBS prep the day before had helped.  Being teachable and growth through 2nd chances have been two areas where we have seen our team excel.  We haven’t gotten things right the first time, but we’ve learned from our attempts and have done significantly better the next time.  This was true of VBS…perhaps by Thursday, we’ll be even better!

Dinner tonight was spaghetti with meat sauce, Italian sausage, green beans, garlic bread and salad.  It was EXCELLENT.  Food is an important part of mission trips.  You spend so much time giving of yourself and expending energy, that you need to refuel in order to be ready for the next thing.  Tonight we certainly refueled for our team time…and little did we know, we would need it!

To be continued…

 Updated Saturday Lunchtime

What is Happening Here?! – Part 2, Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Each night our team time starts with a time of evaluation. Then we move to worship, Bible study, growth journal, and then end with a time of encouragement. Different aspects of the evening appeal to different people, but overall it is an enjoyable time each night. Ending the evening with encouragement is almost always a perfect way to put a bow on the day and to reflect on God’s goodness. Tonight, this was especially true.
Evaluation is the hardest part for our team every single night. Evaluation time is pretty straight forward. First, we spend some time identifying things we did well during the day. It is always neat to look back on the previous 24 hours and to see how God has been at work and how we have grown. I always find TONS of things I can point out that we are doing well. Now, I’m sure at times that students would doubt that statement. I’m typically the one who points out the areas where we aren’t living up to our own standards or where we can grow. However, I almost always wait until a student begins to discuss an area and they begin to call it excellent and praise-worthy. When it isn’t the case, I’m willing to point out the areas they have overlooked. For example, we had a student suggest that we were excellent with our timeliness today. The other team members generally agreed and added their assent. The student proceeded to talk about how “we were only a few minutes late” for one meeting and “almost started on time” for another. It was true that we had almost started on time and the bit of lateness was due to an occurrence outside of the students’ control. That was certainly worth celebrating…the students had been focused and diligent and helped each other out in order to almost meet our goal. However, apart from that single instance, we had not made it on time to ANYTHING the entire day. In a typical day, we have time goals to meet for breakfast prep beginning, breakfast starting, breakfast cleaning being finished, devotional time starting, gathering to load up to leave for the work site, finishing cleanup for the work site, bible study beginning, dinner prep starting, dinner being served, dinner prep finishing, and team time beginning…along with any other things that come up during the day that we can put time goal on. So 1ish out of roughly 11 was “excellent and praiseworthy.” Because I’m willing to consistently and honestly remind students of the reality of our performance rather than a romanticized view of it, at times I end up pointing out a lot of areas that need improvement. That is the second aspect of evaluation.
Once we’ve spent some time celebrating all the things we’ve done well, we turn to areas that need to improve. This could be an area that we were previously unaware of and want to focus on. It could be an area that we didn’t do very well in and want to improve. It could be an area we are doing OK at, but want it to go to well. My favorite is when we take something we are going well and try to push it to excellent. After identifying 3 areas that need improvement, we take some time to think through practical ways we can address each area. These are called our action steps. They need to be clear, timely and measurable. Our team really struggles with this aspect of evaluation. We have a hard time coming up with ways to work on our “needs improvement” areas. For the first time on this trip Kayla and I identified part of why it is so difficult for us. Many of the areas we decide we want to improve upon are areas of being rather than areas of doing. For example, some teams might say “we are always late by 5 minutes” and will come up with an action step that says “we will plan to be 5 minutes ahead of our schedule so if we run late, we’ll still be on time instead of late.” Our team will take the same problem (being late on our time goals) and recognize that the problem is not as much in our behavior, but is fueled by our heart attitude. So we will identify the area that needs improvement as “urgency.” Instead of “making sure we put all of our tiles down straight,” we will say “we need to strive for excellence in everything we do.” Because our areas that need improvement are focused on the heart and less on the actual doing/behavior, we can struggle with coming up with effective action steps. Part of why this is challenging is because we recognize that we cannot change our own hearts. Only the Holy Spirit can work in us and change us. So focusing on the being is asking the Holy Spirit to work, and we can’t legislate that. However, when we are faithful to point out the heart areas that need growth and are willing to give the Spirit space and permission to work in our lives, He does some incredible things. That is what we experienced today.
Our actual evaluation time was tough. We came up with lots of things we did well (and there were more that could have been mentioned…this has really been a great trip so far!) and even easily identified the areas where we wanted to improve. But when it came time to come up with action steps to help address those areas, we really struggled. In fact, we left things blank and moved on because we weren’t sure how exactly to proceed and we were just spinning our wheels in discussion.
From there, we moved into a time of worship. All week we have been using songbooks that Bill and Jon put together for us. We’ve been using a Bluetooth speaker to play the song and then singing along with them and using the booklets for reference when we didn’t know all the words. It has been great. In fact, one of the things that is becoming apparent on this trip is that this group loves to sing! It is great to have the music cranked up to a pretty loud level but then have it drowned out by the intensity of singing coming from the team. I am finding myself stopping in the midst of singing just to listen to the team. It has been great. It is also a source of joy and focus for our team. Singing these praise songs has allowed our team to connect with God and to be open to what the Spirit wants to do. It has served as a buffer between our unfocused down-times and our God-centered times. Tonight was an excellent example. Worship really set the mood for the night.
After a great time of singing and prayer together, we moved into bible study. We focused on I Peter and the theme for the day was Identity. It was great to see God open students’ hearts. Between the open and honest sharing during lunch, the success at VBS, the hearty and yummy dinner and the sweet time of worship, everyone’s hearts were primed for God to work, and He did. The conversation really turned when we started talking about trusting God, even when we don’t see the path forward or when we can’t see why the path would be a good (the best) path. We began to discuss trusting the Lord and what keeps us from being able to trust Him fully. That’s when things opened up. One student began to share about how big an idol was in his life. As he identified the idol and how scared he was to trust God because God might “take that away from me” it was clear to see the Spirit working. This really resonated with other students. We were able to talk about God’s goodness and about His plans. What really got me excited is that it connected directly to some of the things we had talked about earlier in Bible study and specifically to some extra things from other portions of Scripture that I had shared with the team. I didn’t know that God was working in this student’s heart the way He was or that other students would relate so closely to it, but by being faithful to listen to the prompting of the Spirit, I shared earlier in the night and then God blessed that obedience. (These are both areas that became themes for our trip).
I wish I could share more about what exactly was shared at the team time and how it impacted the student and our team. However, that story belongs to that student. It isn’t fair for me to share things before that student is able to talk to his/her parents and family. All I can say about the night is that God prompted one student to take a huge risk and to share something incredibly personal and scary. God blessed that student’s obedience by opening up the team in a unique and special way. There is no doubt that tonight was a turning point for our team and that the rest of the trip is set up to go in a direction that we haven’t experienced on a trip before.
Our earlier action step areas suddenly didn’t need specific action steps because we had all seen what a properly oriented heart looked like and we all wanted it. We wanted to focus on urgency, authentic community, and excellence. We saw all three displayed in team time (both by the student who took a risk and by the rest of the team as they also risked and shared and cared and prayed).
However, the night wasn’t over. After team time finished up, we had our regular adult leaders’ meeting. In these meetings we debrief the day, address any concerns and look forward to the next day and the rest of the trip. During tonight’s meeting we rejoiced over what God was doing and were at a loss to see where things might go next. We spent some time in prayer and developed some strategies to move forward. It was great to celebrate as adults and to see that areas we had been praying for BEFORE the trip ever began were beginning to be addressed by God. We met late, but didn’t feel weary because we knew God had been at work.
After the meeting was done, one of the students needed some further encouragement. This student was struggling with joy and had seen a deep joy and passion in me the night before (remember I said I got a little overly excited during Bible study!). This student doubted his/her own faith and walk because it didn’t produce the same type of joy they had witnessed the night before. He/she said that when he/she did have joy, it was fake and contrived. I encouraged the student that others saw a genuine joy and about how much teenagers are good BS detectors…you can’t fake it for long with teenagers before they pick up on the fakeness. These experts at detecting inconsistencies and hypocritical behavior had not detected such in this student because the student’s faith was more authentic than he/she was giving him/herself credit for. I also reminded the student that God is at work and His work is perfect in His timing and to not get discouraged that his/her life didn’t look like that of a 37 year old youth pastor…because, after all, he/she ISN’T a 37 year old youth pastor! I told the student that we would talk more the next day and not to worry too much…I could see God at work and the student could trust God to fulfill His promises.
I was exhausted and ready for bed, but so encouraged by what God had been doing. The last thing I said during the adult leader’s meeting gives you the best insight into where things are at: “tomorrow is either going to be awesome or terrible! After a day like today and a night like tonight, Satan is going to be scared and is going to come HARD at us. We will either go like this (shooting hand in an upward trajectory towards the sky) or like this (plummeting hand in a nosedive towards the ground) and it will all depend on whether we choose to listen to God tomorrow or Satan. Here’s to hoping we listen to God.

**(since most of these blog posts are now going to be posted well after the fact, I’m not going to share specific prayer requests as those things have already passed. I will try to incorporate what our team was praying for/looking for into the actual bodies of the blog posts)

Uncharted Waters – Day 3, Wednesday, June 14, 2017

It is amazing the difference it can make when you are in an area where you are familiar vs. an area where you aren’t.  We develop routines and habits in order to help us stick to the familiar areas in our lives.  We create schedules and order in our lives so that we know what is coming and are able to perform to our highest efficiency once those things arrive.  For many of us, when that routine is interrupted or the normal flow of day to day life is altered, it throws us off of our game.  If those alterations result in our arriving at a familiar place, just not when or how we expected, we are typically able to adapt quickly and get right back into the flow.  When those changes lead you into “uncharted waters” it can create a sense of panic and uncertainty…or it can create a really cool opportunity to trust God and to walk in faith.

This morning when we arrived at the worksite, we only had 2 things to show for our two days of work, but both were extremely significant.  First, we had a platform.  Level.  Square.  Firm.  Ready to be built upon.  It didn’t look like much, but the adults knew it was exactly what was needed to propel our team forward.  The second thing we had…a smiling Miss Reba sitting on her front porch.

Until today, the weather has been brutally hot, so much so that Miss Reba has been confined to her house because she couldn’t stand to sit in the shade on her front porch.  It isn’t that the temperatures have been particularly high, but for whatever reason the sun has just been brutal.  This morning, however, was much cooler.  There were some clouds and an ever-so-slight breeze.  So when we showed up to the worksite, Miss Reba was waiting for us on her porch.  She was smiling and excited to see us.  The time our students had invested in her yesterday had made an impact.  What a joy it was to see her smiling and watching and just enjoying being a part of our team.  The students have all been impacted by her faith.  Her willingness to see nothing as a challenge or as a difficulty because God has walked with her through them really spoke to our students.  They freak out over a pop-quiz or when a friend doesn’t like their Instagram post or respond immediately to their snapchat.  She’s buried her only son and her husband and faced it with grace.  That fact didn’t escape our kids.

With Miss Reba looking on, we got to work.  We knew we had a longer day today because there would be no VBS and our afternoon outreach time wasn’t scheduled until much later than normal.  We were determined to make more progress than previous days.  Now that we had the platform perfect, we were able to work out from it.  So we created a couple of different teams.  One team was working from the platform to the porch while the other was working on the ramp from the platform down to the ground.  Both groups had problems to solve and issues to navigate.  As the morning wore on, progress was being made by both groups.  Finally it looked like a worksite!

When it was time for lunch, the team started to pull out their sandwiches and such and begin to get ready to eat.  I grabbed my stuff and walked up to the porch to sit in the shade and on a comfortable chair.  Next thing I know, the entire team has joined me and we all sat around and ate lunch with Miss Reba.  We shared some more questions and enjoyed our time together.  Just being in Miss Reba’s presence seemed to encourage and spur the youth.

After lunch, we got back to work.  Things progressed quickly.  Looking at the progress and the remaining time, Kayla and I realized that we were at a point of no return.  We needed to complete a ramp all the way or Miss Reba was going to be trapped in her house until the next day.  She probably wouldn’t have cared as she doesn’t go out too often, but we needed to have something complete.  We had put support beams and joists up for the ramp that ran all the way in to the porch.  We didn’t have a place to put the old ramp back temporarily in place.  We HAD to finish.  The good news was that we were making good progress and finishing was a more than doable goal.  Then it happened.

The first drops of rain came down gently and without much ado.  But they were a sign of more to come.  As we glanced at the sky and looked around the little valley we were in, it was clear to see that a storm was coming.  We quickly had people clean up the extra, unused tools scattered around the worksite and moved the saw and necessary tools under the canopy (praise God for that purchase!).  When the rain began, we tried to keep the work area under the canopy…but teams were working in different directions and they were making too much progress!  Now typically I’d expect the arrival of rain to damped the spirits of the team or to distract them from the work that needed to get done (playing in the rain has become one of my favorite things to do with students on mission trips…I think back to fun rain times in Pawleys, the DR, Haiti, and Mexico whenever it pours on a mission trip).  That was not the case for this team.  It is clear that although Satan was trying to distract our team, their hearts were focused on the Lord and they weren’t listening to what Satan had to say.  Students kept right on working despite the rain.  Support beams were measured and cut, joist hangers were screwed in, and decking boards were cut and put in place.  It was wonderful to see.   Two things in particular stood out to me on the worksite this afternoon.  First, Mikayla was an awesome servant.  At one point we needed someone to get UNDER the ramp to screw in a support we had missed.  Mikayla didn’t hesitate and crawled under a tight space to make it happen…in the mud and the rain.  And she did it with a smile and volunteered to go back under seconds later.  We were able to get to this problem without her going under, but the servant attitude and joy with which she approached it had a big impact on the team.  The second thing I noticed was the change in the team and their soft hearts.  At one point, the decking board team began to bicker.  They weren’t connecting and weren’t able to agree on how to most efficiently move forward.  This was right before lunch.  After the break I called the three of them together and we looked at the effects of their bickering.  From the middle of the ramp there didn’t appear to be a problem, but when we moved to the porch and looked back, it was clear to see that they had started to get sloppy with their work and that the direction of the ramp was being impacted by their lack of focus.  We worked together to adjust the line over the next couple of boards and they worked well.  What stood out was later in the afternoon when they came to me and said that they had worked out their issues, prayed together and were back to working well and efficiently.  Then they apologized for their lack of care and thanked me for holding them accountable and helping them fix their mistakes.  It was clear that they desired to grow and to serve the Lord and to serve Miss Reba.  Those two incidents are just two of many that indicate that students’ hearts are tuned towards the Lord and that they are listening to His voice and His prompting rather than that of Satan.  What an encouraging day on the worksite…and things were just getting started!

By the end of the workday, we had a completed ramp!  Not all of the boards were completely secured, there wasn’t a railing system, we needed to add no stick treads…but it was functional enough that Miss Reba COULD get out if she needed!  It was great to celebrate as a team finishing such a major portion of the project.  We went from a platform to a completed 30+ foot long ramp in a day!

We headed from the worksite back to God’s Closet for an early partial team time.  We did our evaluation and some worship before heading out for the evening.  We headed around the corner and up the street to Manchester Baptist church to join their youth group for the evening.

Pastor Ken is the main dude at God’s Closet.  His son-in-law, Carl, is the youth guy at Manchester Baptist.  Typically on Wednesdays in the summer they run a van around the community and pick up kids and then take them to a farm to ride horses, play, eat, and have a good night.  However, due to the rain, it was too wet.  So we joined them for worship, lesson, games and pizza at the church.  Their group was elementary and middle school students.  They didn’t have any high school students.  It was sad to realize that most of the older youth in the community were completely disconnected from the Lord.  In fact, as I think back on the entire trip, I can’t remember having a single interaction with high school students or even seeing them around from a distance.  The youth group had 1 15 year old girl and that was it.  I was struck by how blessed our students are to have friends who are walking with the Lord and to have fellowship with other believers as they try to navigate the crazy world of high school.  I don’t think it was lost on them either.

Our night with the youth group was AWESOME.  The first sign it was going to be great was when we met Carl.  The students were convinced that he and I are long lost brothers.  I didn’t see it, but the students were convinced.  He’s a little shorter but has a beard and mannerisms just like me (according to the students).  They also said we acted the same and taught the same.  The only similarity I found between the two of us was that we wore the same slide sandals…but whatever.  We sang some songs, that we didn’t know.  The worshipping spirit that has followed our team around all trip went with us to the church.  It was INCREDIBLE to see our guys dancing and singing and doing silly motions to songs that were really geared towards the elementary/jr high aged kids of the group.  They were silly and engaged.  It was awesome.  Then we heard a lesson from Carl.  He talked about 1 Timothy 4:12 and Romans 12:1-2.  Our kids all laughed and looked right at me when he announced what passage we would be studying…as our guys know, it ALWAYS comes back to Romans J  After an encouraging and challenging albeit short message, we headed upstairs to the gym for dodgeball and games.  It was a great time.

As the night wore on, several things stood out.  First, our students engaged with their kids and volunteers in such a wonderful way.  They demonstrated the love of Christ without shame and full of joy.  In particular, Corinne was beaming.  She was clearly in her element as she spent time with some of the younger girls.  Her best bud was Holly.  I can still picture Corinne giving Holly a piggy back ride across the youth room to the water fountain and helping her get a band-aide. It was precious.  The most incredible part of the night was when Olivia connected with a little girl named Callie.  They began to talk and I watched them as they walked out of the gym and sat in the stairwell.  Turns out that Olivia shared the gospel with Callie and she prayed to receive Christ that night!  Praise God!  It was so cool to see God working THROUGH our students after He’s being doing so much work IN our students.  The night ended with an epic ping pong battle between Carl and I that went into “the ping pong equivalent of quadruple overtime” according to Carl.  In the end, goodness prevailed and I won, but just barely. It was a great time together and we learned a lot that night.  The team left encouraged and excited about what God had accomplished.  It had been a full and rewarding day and we all figured God was done and the rest of the night would pass quickly and without pause.  We were wrong, in a great way!

To be continued….

It Wouldn’t be a trip without it – Day 3 (Continued), Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Earlier I mentioned how much I LOVE Zaxby’s chicken.  Really, it’s the Zax sauce that makes the chicken fingers so wonderful.  Every time I head down south with youth, I get to stop at Zaxby’s and enjoy the tangy, yummy, goodness that is Zax sauce.  It isn’t really a youth trip until I get to eat some Zaxby’s.  Along with our usual food stops, there are a few other things that make a trip an Outbound trip.  Challenge, growth, Joe getting excited about Bible study, and newly formed and deepened friendships are just a few things that happen on every trip.  Along with those there is one more ingredient that seems to be involved in every Outbound trip…”the wall.”  It just wouldn’t be a trip without it!

Usually on or around the middle of a trip, students begin to hit the proverbial “wall.”  I’ve never seen this wall, but I’ve watched teen after teen smash right into it.  Things are going along swimmingly when suddenly they aren’t.  Progress is being made in spiritual development when suddenly it isn’t.  The group is getting along great and without warning something changes and someone gets upset.  This phenomenon results in teens being sullen, “punchy”, overly-sensitive, and down-right mean.  I’ve seen it time and time again…and we saw it again on this trip.  However, like just about everything else on this trip, it showed up in a surprising and unexpected way.

After a great night at the church sharing youth group games and pizza with the kids, we returned to “the Closet” to finish our team time.  We had a very productive Bible study and worship time and even encouragement beads were great.  The biggest challenge of the evening was deciding who to give a bead to because there were so many encouragement worthy things happening on the trip!  Somewhere in the middle of this team time, however, a couple of students found “the wall.”  For one, it was pretty obvious.  This student didn’t want to give out an encouragement bead and then after the meeting was over left in silence and refused to talk to the rest of the team.  The student ended up secluding him/herself from the group.  Before we began our adult meeting I went in search of this student in order to figure out what was wrong.  I didn’t find that student, but found another student sullenly staring off into the distance, alone.  As I sat down and proceeded to have a great heart-to-heart with the student, it was clear that “the wall” had claimed another victim.  This student was concerned about friendships and was fearful of the future.  After a few minutes of chatting together and encouraging the student to trust the Lord and let their faith show, I was able to pray with the student and send them off encouraged and refreshed.  I returned to the adult leaders’ meeting where I found myself in another unusual situation.

Typically on a LeaderTreks trip, our teams struggle on the worksite with urgency and productivity.  By the end of the week (or two weeks in some cases) we are behind on our schedule and have to kick it into overdrive in order to finish the project…and in most cases, even that isn’t enough to FULLY finish the task.  However, as we debriefed tonight, it was clear that our team was not only on pace to finish, but  to finish early and be able to dream about some extras!  This is a new position for me.  It was a GREAT position to be in J  We charted the course ahead and planned what needed to be accomplished on the project and began to dream about what Friday could look like with a completed project and some extra free time!  It was a great place to be.  After a time of prayer, I headed out of the meeting knowing that there was still a student plastered up against the wall that needed to be peeled off and re-inflated for the remainder of the week (think of when a cartoon character runs into a wall and is flattened and needs to be peeled off and blown back up).  So I headed into the guys’ room, expecting to see typical teenage response…instead I saw a group of guys huddled up and praying together for their teammate.  They didn’t know how to handle the situation themselves and rather than gossiping or ignoring things or getting frustrated, they turned to God and prayed!  What a glorious sight to behold for a youth pastor.

I spent a moment talking with the guys’ about what was going on and then set out to find the upset student.  It didn’t take long to find the student and we had a chance to sit and chat for a while.  I tried my best to listen and be sympathetic to this student’s feelings.  I asked a few questions and offered some advice.  I shared some personal experiences and spoke some pointed truth into the student’s heart.  By the end of our conversation, the student was encouraged and able to head to bed with a much more positive outlook on the trip and on life.  I suspected that a good night’s sleep would help this student overcome the effects of “the wall.”

By the time I had finished and sent the student to bed it was really late.  I “closed up shop” by turning off all the lights and cleaning the last few things that needed to be cleaned up for the night and then hit the hay.  I was exhausted and needed some sleep…I too was about to hit the wall!  As I lay down in bed and leaned over to set my alarm for the morning, my phone buzzed.  It was a text message from a student back home who “needed to talk.”  I almost ignored the text until the morning, but decided to respond.  Fortunately it was a “brief” conversation and I was able to close my eyes only 15 minutes later at 1:20am.  I prayed for quick sleep as I drifted off, knowing that I had a prayer chair waiting for me early the next morning.  If was going to make it through the wall and the rest of the trip, it was going to be by God’s grace and through His strength.  However, I wasn’t worried…it was clear that God was working in our team and He was in control…so I decided to just trust Him and look to Him for strength.  I fell asleep with an encouraging refrain running through my head: “your love never fails, it never gives up, it never runs out on me!”  Praise God for His love!

Obedience and Blessing – Day 4, Thursday, June 15, 2017

Obedience can be hard. Obedience involves acknowledgement of another’s authority and then compliance with their wishes/commands. When you are tired and almost through a mission trip, obedience can be a challenge. It involves making a choice. When that choice needs to be made the instant you wake up, it is SO easy to just ignore the Spirit’s prompting and to go back to sleep. But I’m learning this week that obedience to the Lord leads to blessing.
“There’s never been a moment…” Those are the first words I hear each morning as my alarm blares in my ear. I don’t have a buzzer, I wake up to music. As those words pierced my conscious this morning, I had a choice. I wanted SO badly to turn the alarm off and sleep for another 45 minutes. However, I had committed to my team the night before that I would get up early, with the students who were waking for breakfast prep, and I would begin one of our action steps. We had decided that all day long we would have a rotating prayer chair. Someone would be praying for our team at all times today. I volunteered to start it out. In that instant when my music blared, I had a choice to make. It wasn’t a choice of obedience…obedience was certain. The choice was to WHOM I would be obedient. Would I follow up on the promise I had made to my team, trust the Lord, and be obedient to His calling to start the day in prayer, or would I be obedient to my selfish flesh, hit the snooze, and start the prayer chair a little later? Remember, I had closed my eyes less than 5 ½ hours earlier this morning…I was EXHAUSTED. I chose to honor my commitment and to trust that the Lord would give me the strength I needed. I’m glad I did.
I spent 45 minutes praying silently by myself and then another 10 minutes praying with Sam at the start of breakfast. Starting out the day with almost an hour straight of prayer was such a refreshment! I got to focus my heart on the Lord and hear from Him before things got too crazy for the day. It turns out that the rest of the team enjoyed the prayer chair throughout the day as much as I did. It was certainly an encouragement and blessing to be able to look up and see a teammate in prayer all day long. I know that I felt it and the team mentioned how much of a blessing it was to them as well.
Our second action step of the day also began bright and early. I’ve mentioned how much our group likes to worship and how much they put into it. Last night we decided that in order to keep our focus on the Lord, we would try to get through breakfast and cleanup quickly so that we could squeeze in an extra time of singing and worship before Bible study. As everyone kicked in, the team breezed through breakfast and cleanup and gathered to start our day with some food for our souls as well as our bodies. I knew right then and there that today would be a special day. To see our entire team moving with urgency and passion…so we could get to WORSHIP!?!?!? It was awesome! Devos were also encouraging and challenging this morning and I heard lots of chatter between devos and the start of work on the worksite about what students had read and what they had gotten out of the passage. At this point I’m just not sure what to do…I’m beside myself with joy! Could the day get any better? It was barely 3 hours into the day and I was already blown away by God.
Earlier in the blog I asked for prayer regarding a package that Kristen and I needed to have shipped to us. Getting mail here isn’t easy. Kayla uses a PO Box for all the LeaderTreks mail for the summer. However, if things need a physical address to be delivered, things get dicey. We mailed our package to the church, left a note on the door and hoped for the best. At lunch on Wednesday we received notification that our package had been delivered and signed for…but we didn’t recognize the name that had signed for it. Wednesday night we asked at youth group where it might be and who might have signed for it but no one knew anything…until Pastor Ken arrived right as we were leaving. To our relief, he informed us that mail for the church usually is signed for by the “neighbors” at the local dry cleaners. Unfortunately, they keep “unique” hours. Well, nothing seems to be able to stop the awesomeness of today because Kristen stopped by the cleaners on the way to the worksite and they happened to be in, she got our package and was able to get right to the worksite without delay. We got our package! I’m so relieved! Kristen was probably tired of hearing me ask about it! But it is hear and all is good, thanks to Kristen and her persistence. (A special thanks to Janie for helping out from the church office!) Speaking of Kristen…
I need to spend a few minutes bragging on Kristen. She has been AWESOME. I wish I could explain how incredibly encouraging it is for me to have her around this summer. As a youth pastor you invest and invest and invest in students and often you aren’t sure how much of your investment is appreciated and if it truly makes a difference. Seeing a student who you spend time investing into turn around and choose to serve the Lord for the summer is one of the most encouraging things you can ask for as a youth pastor. When that student not only serves, but demonstrates a deep love for the Lord and a joy that can only come from His Spirit, that’s incredible. God has used Kristen so much this trip to impact the team. She’s been great with the girls and encouraging to the guys. She has done the hard work and done it with a smile. She has been open and honest and mature and wise. Most importantly, she has shown the students, by example, how to finish strong. Outbound as a whole is going to benefit in a huge way from her service this summer. I could spend so much more time bragging on her. If you see her, please thank her for loving the Lord and being obedient to Him this summer. Thank her for loving students well. Most of all, thank her for being a risk-taker. After all, she took the risk to spend the summer interning with me!
I’ve mentioned several times how different this trip is from others. The worksite today is a great example of that. We hit some snags and had to re-evaluate a few things. Instead of getting down or frustrated, the leaders re-grouped and without having to be told, recast their vision and got their teams moving on the new task. We were putting a railing system on the ramp. Changing course mid-stream meant a much more intense worksite than the adults had anticipated the night before, but the team tackled it with a gusto and a joy that has become a signature on this trip. Teams shifted and morphed as needs arose. Rather than adults needing to reassign students or having to remind students of the purpose and need for urgency, students took those tasks upon themselves. When someone found him/herself without a specific task or unneeded on their team, they simply drifted to another team and found a way to serve there. When needs arose, people asked and teammates came to their help. It was a great thing to see. By the end of the day, the railing system had taken shape and was almost complete. The finish line was in sight. Tomorrow could be a great day for our team on the worksite.
After an encouraging and exciting time on the worksite it was time to focus on VBS. I wish I could give you tons of specific details about everything that happened, but I was just so swept up in the moment. Let me paint a picture of VBS that also pretty much sums up the trip so far.
Upon arriving at the splash pad, we realized that the freeze pops I had purchased the other day were still in the freezer at God’s closet. It is kinda hard to give out freeze pops to kids at the splash pad when they are in the freezer at God’s closet. So Kayla hopped in the van and went to fetch them (and perhaps run a couple of other needed errands) for us. Kristen was in the prayer chair and had found a quiet space across the pad from the group. I pulled out my laptop, sat down and started to work on the blog…I was a little behind! Bill helped me think back through the trip. So you might be asking yourself, “what do 10 teenagers do when the adults who are supposed to be leading them are all busy and preoccupied?” The answer: they run a VBS! All by themselves! AND THEY KILLED IT!
The students got together, got organized, began their VBS and ran it with grace and poise. They gathered the students from the nearby housing units, went around the splash pad and picked up some more, and got down to business. Students were engaged and all helping. Conversations between activities were focused on the Lord and I heard several students sharing the Gospel with kids. As new kids drifted over to the VBS, our students were on the lookout. They saw them coming and went to meet them, made the students feel comfortable and made sure the parents were ok and swept them into the flow of the VBS. It was INCREDIBLE! There is NO doubt that the students were connected to the Spirit and that they were looking to honor the Lord with the way they served. Without a doubt, this was the best VBS I’ve seen run by students. PERIOD. What a JOY to watch them do it! It is really cool to see the LeaderTreks program in action. We are using it, but not like I’m used to seeing it used. It has been so natural and easy. I’ve seen students casting vision, navigating obstacles, counting the cost, charting the course…it’s been awesome! We haven’t needed awkward team huddles or adult pep-talks. Students have been teachable, humble, and willing to serve. It has been a joy. By the end of the VBS time, another child had prayed to receive Christ and the team was on a high! It had been an incredible day and an incredible week. Certainly we’ve reached the summit of the mountain, right?

Grab the Popcorn, God’s putting on a Show! – Day 4 (continued), Thursday, June 15, 2017

There are certain moments in life that grab your attention and never let go. The memories are burned in your mind as clear as if they had happened yesterday. Sometimes those memories are there because they were scarring and scary. Sometimes they are formative and transformational. Sometimes they are joyous and celebratory. Whatever the reason, they stick with you over the years and no matter what happens, they always seem to have a place in your mind and your heart. And they can be brought back up by certain things…smells, the taste of a certain type of gum, sounds, locations, etc. In youth ministry, many of those memories are associated with songs and music. There are moments where the Spirit moves through a song and those memories become etched in your mind. I can think of singing praise songs on deck chairs in Acapulco on my 2nd ever mission trip. I can still smell the salt air and hear the waves crashing. I remember feeling as if Jesus was sitting between me and the student I was with. I can remember worshipping in the DR on our last night and looking up after having had my eyes closed and seeing students standing praising with their hands raised as they poured out their hearts to God. I can remember hearing Sinking Deep for the first time sitting alone at the Edge and feeling as if God was banging down the door of students’ hearts as I wept. I can remember The Stand being belted on a fall retreat in VA Beach as students committed to stand for the Lord. Certainly there are numerous visions of Holy Ghost parties that come to mind along with the Edge as we celebrate each year all of the newly confessed believers. There are others too. After the Kentucky trip I can add another one to my list.
Thursday night team time was incredible. After such a wonderful day, it should have been no surprise that God showed up and did some incredible things. However, as usual, God was working in one direction and I was looking the other and when He finally revealed what He was doing, I was caught off guard and surprised. Wayne Kerr has a line in one of his songs that says “I was taken by surprise, by an extraordinary love.” This is certainly the way God works for me!
Evaluation and team times have gotten easier and harder at the same time throughout the week. We still struggle with specific action steps, but our team has found a rhythm and honesty during team time that is beautiful. Tonight was no exception. What made tonight unique from the start was the openness of Bill. It seemed as though God decided to use Bill and his openness to spark something in the students. As he and I went back and forth sharing, it was a cool dynamic. As Bill would speak, it would remind me of something important. Then when he was done, I’d share my insight and heart. That would spur something in Bill and he would have a follow-up based on what I had said. This went on for quite a while. (Neat side note—on Sunday we looked at Hebrews 10 where the author challenges the Hebrew believers to consider ways to spur one another on to love and good works…we saw a beautiful example of that throughout the trip as God used Bill to spur me on and then used me to spur Bill on! I love when God shows off!). Bill’s openness truly impacted the kids. As we turned from evaluation to worship, it was clear that God’s spirit was present. For Bible study we looked at Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well. One of the points that stood out to the team was that the disciples didn’t question or doubt Jesus when they saw him with the woman. Instead, their faith and respect for him overwhelmed their doubts and curiosity and they kept quiet. As we explored that fact, God moved in a mighty way.
First Kayla shared how she learned to trust God with an RA decision in college that didn’t go her way. It was hard to trust when God seemed to be doing something “wrong” instead of what she (and everyone around her) had assumed was best. Then Kristen shared her story. It’s been a long journey for Kristen and I’ve been blessed to be a small part of it. God has done so much in her heart in the time I’ve known her. As she shared about her struggles to trust God and to trust His goodness, I was struck by how real she was and by how much she has grown. Her story was very poignant and powerful for the students. Her willingness to open up and share also sparked a transparency within the team. One by one the students began to share about their faith and specifically their challenges to believe in God’s goodness. As student after student shared about their faith obstacles, things got more and more real and more and more personal. Finally, one student broke down in tears as they shared about what has been happening in their heart and in their family. It was real and raw and honest. The best part was seeing the team respond. Other students offered words of encouragement and empathy. Others offered Scripture encouragement. Finally, others just listened. It was an incredible time. When God shows up like this, you just grab your popcorn and sit back and watch. God is showing off and I’m enjoying the show!
Earlier in the week I had gotten overly excited about seeing covenantal language in one of our bible readings. I sent the team on a tangent that night reading God’s promises in the Old Testament. Sure, it was a blessing in that moment, but I didn’t realize just how much of a blessing it would turn out to be. As kids were sharing, I couldn’t help but think back to those passages and God’s promise to do good to his people and that they would be His people and He would be their God. We had read in Ezekiel 36. The next chapter of Ezekiel is the valley of dry bones, where Ezekiel sees God work in a mighty and powerful way as he brings life back into the dead bones. There is an incredibly powerful song by Lauren Daigle called Come Alive (Dry Bones) based off that passage. The song talks about seeing people we love led off by Satan, away from the Lord and pleading with God to breathe life back into those lost loved ones. The song and the passage provided the perfect salve for our hearts in that moment.
Once the students had spent time encouraging and empathizing, I read through the passage in Ezekiel and then we played the song. Some students wept. Others listened. As the chorus came, everyone broke out into song, praising God. Then the bridge became our plea. “Breathe, o breath of God, breathe, o breath of God, now breathe of breath of God now breathe!” We pleaded as a team for the life-giving breath of God to breathe new life into the people we loved most in the world who needed Him the most. It was a powerful and incredible moment as a team. In that moment, with tears streaming down faces, there was a palpable hope and strength in the spirit. Whenever I hear that song, I’ll think of that moment. God is truly good.
What an incredible way to finish an incredible day. Tomorrow is a day of celebration and reveling in the Lord and His goodness. We should finish the ramp quickly and be able to celebrate with Miss Reba. We are spending time with the church and should be able to celebrate new connections with them. Finally, we will spend time as a team sharing a great meal and final team time and can celebrate God’s goodness and work IN and THROUGH our team this week. What a way to end what has been an incredible and amazing week!

One Last Push – Day 5, Friday, June 16, 2017

Typically on the final day at the worksite, our teams are running around frantically trying to complete as much work as possible. We usually end up staying later than anticipated and end up skipping out on our team adventure in order to leave the worksite in a good place. Part of this is due to lack of progress with our teams throughout the week. However, usually it is because our trips are at the end of the summer and we are one of, if not THE final team on site that summer. As a result, we feel the need to finish the job and leave things in an appropriate state. This year, all of those variables are different, and so our Friday experience was very different.
Throughout the week we have done a great job on the worksite and have made steady and consistent progress. So much so, that driving up to Miss Reba’s house today we were faced with a very manageable amount of work. Add to that fact that we didn’t have the pressure of being the final team for the summer, and it made for an awesome last day on site.
When we arrived, we were surprised to find the house empty and Miss Reba not there. Then we remembered hearing earlier in the week that she always went out on Friday mornings to get her hair done! We got right to work. Students didn’t even need to be assigned into teams today. Those who were working on the railing system yesterday jumped right back to the final sections that needed to be completed. Others spent time cleaning up around the site. We also had people start to work on the final small finishing touches. Sandpaper was gliding over the rails, making them smooth and comfortable to the touch. Structural attachment points were reinforced and double checked. The final railings were put into place. Team members worked on putting down non-skid strips all along the ramp. As jobs finished, more and more team members jumped onto the remaining tasks until the final moments. That’s when it happened…Miss Reba returned home.
As she pulled up the hill, we realized there was a problem…our vans were blocking her driveway. We quickly moved one so she could get closer to her home. As she pulled up, you could see the smile beaming from her face from within the car. It was such an encouragement.
To say that Miss Reba has a narrow driveway is a bit of an understatement. Her driveway is so narrow that unless you are right up by the house, it is difficult to get out of the car because there isn’t space on either side to do so. Miss Reba’s car stopped in one of those sections and she was determined to get out and check out our nearly finished ramp. As students scrambled to nail in the final non-skid strips, I went over to the car and helped Miss Reba out. She put her arm around my waist and squeezed me tight and said “I love you honey, don’t tell you wife!” She is such a tease! It was clear that she had been to the beauty parlor and was “all gussied up” for the occasion. She didn’t need to have her hair done to be shining that morning, her love was beaming, but she had gone anyway. She made sure to tell me how she just had to go to the salon every Friday and how they take such good care of her. Then we walked slowly across the yard to the ramp. Instead of using her walker, she was latched on to me. As we got to the end of the ramp, the sea of students parted and she could see her completed ramp…smooth, sturdy railings and non-skid strips and all. She and I slowly walked up the ramp to her porch and sat down. The moment she reached the porch, all the students started cheering! Miss Reba was beaming. It was a great moment of celebration. I thought she was going to break into a dance!
As students worked to tidy up the jobsite and put tools away, others made their way up to see Miss Reba and give her a hug. She told every one of them how much she loved them and how wonderful it was to have them and how much she would miss them when they were gone. It was a wonderful way to finish the week. We stood together on the ramp, Miss Reba in the midst of our team, and took a group photo to celebrate. It was great.
The ramp was completed, the job site was clean, the tools were loaded and there was just one last task to be completed as we said goodbye. Earlier in the day, all of the team members had signed a 2×2 that would be used as a finishing piece on the deck. Now, with Miss Reba looking on, Kayla and I put the final screws into the final board and officially completed the project. It looks great! And every time Miss Reba walks down her ramp, she is able to see the signatures of all the youth who put their heart and sweat into her ramp. She said she didn’t need a piece of wood to remember us, but I’m sure it won’t hurt to have one! It was a cool day of celebration.
Our afternoon was also one of celebration. That became a theme for the day. We drove to the local park and met up with Carl and some of the kids and adults from their youth group. We threw the Frisbee around and had a blast. We mixed up teams and played together for a few games. My team, team Pennsyltucky, went undefeated and had a blast. Then some of us older folks took a break while others had a Kentucky vs. Pennsylvania match. Good news, team PA won  For those who weren’t playing Frisbee, there were intense games of Dutch Blitz and great conversations happening all around the pavilion. It was a nice and fun way to enjoy the body of Christ. We spent time encouraging each other and building into relationships. It was a great way to spend an afternoon.
From there, we went back to the Closet, cleaned up and headed out for dinner. We drove to Sonny’s BBQ and ate our fill! What a wonderful treat! Ribs, pork, brisket, turkey, slaw, cornbread, and SWEET TEA! It was great. We also had a ton of fun and a lot of great conversations. It was exactly how a team should be able to celebrate at the end of an awesome week…sharing an awesome meal and an awesome time of fellowship. That led into our final team time which was one filled with joy and excitement as we looked back on what God had done throughout the week and began to dream about what He might do as we returned home.
Saturday morning was quick and bittersweet. We loaded up the vans and cleaned up the Closet (as best we could) and took some pictures. It was great to see Pastor Ken and Booger one last time. It was sad to say goodbye to Kayla. After two trips, she has truly become part of our family. I have no doubt that she will keep in touch with students and leaders and that we simply said a “see you later” not a “goodbye” as we drove away.
Typically on a mission trip, driving away from the mission site means that all we have in front of our team is a long drive home and then the “real world.” However, we’ve learned that there is a HUGE benefit to extending our week-long trips a little bit longer. We spend a day or two afterwards debriefing the experience and enjoying time together as a team before re-entry into the real world. This year we headed to Deep Creek Lake in Maryland for a couple of days to debrief and enjoy each other. It was a great time! We rolled into town and stopped at the grocery store. I always enjoy sending the team out to purchase everything we need for our meals for the next couple of days. We splurge on food and get good stuff to celebrate as a team. This year, we had stir fry, bacon, steaks and chicken, and lots of yummy goodness. Between the time in the grocery store, time together preparing and enjoying meals, playing games, worship, and team time, our Saturday and Sundays get filled up quickly. What struck me the most about our time at the lake was the unity and depth our team maintained throughout the weekend. While we certainly had fun, we also had deep and purposeful conversations. While we joked and were silly, our hearts were still tuned towards the Lord. It was a great way to end a great week. I feel like I’m saying that a lot, but I really can’t think of better ways to say it 
I’d like to share two final anecdotes with you that, to me, summarize this trip. The first occurred throughout the day on Sunday. During the early parts of the day, people did their own thing and spent time in different directions. Some got in the hot tub, others played cards, some rested, others went to the lake. However, by late afternoon, the entire team had wandered down to the lake together. As we spent time diving off the dock, swimming around, making up silly contests and goofing around, I couldn’t help but smile. Seeing the ease and comfort of this team was a joy. People all got along and genuinely enjoyed each other. Changed hearts were evident throughout the team and they had changed relationships and interactions as well. Conversations drifted from serious to goofy and back to serious. People taught others how to do things they were good at (Corinne tried to teach some synchronized swimming moves, others taught diving and crazy jumps, there were lessons on making bigger splashes, and even how to hold your breath longer and swim faster…they even TRIED to figure out how to better push people into the lake!). It was such a wonderful picture of what a team should look like!
The second, was our team time Sunday night. We brought a cross with us and have been using it throughout the week. We’ve “nailed” various things to it throughout the week like idols, things preventing us from serving God with our whole heart, relationships and people who make it more difficult for us to trust God, fears, etc. On Sunday, we talked about the things that are preventing us from living the new and abundant life that God has for us. We envisioned what that life at home might look like and then thought about the things in our hearts and in our lives that were preventing us from getting there. We nail those things to the cross as well. After a time of worship and bible study, we were reminded that Jesus had opened a new and living way for us to access God. Our bible study that day had been on community and had looked at Hebrews 10. As we sat in a completely dark room, we were reminded that Jesus had made it possible for us to live that life and that he had taken all of those obstacles and fears and doubts and sins on the cross. We were reminded that he loved us. Then we touched the paper with a flame. The result in the darkness was a nearly blinding fireball. After a brief moment, the flame was gone and we were plunged back into darkness. When we switched on the light and looked at the cross, there was nothing there but the nails. There was nothing standing between us and the life God has called us to live. Jesus had taken care of all of those things. It was a powerful and poignant way to end the week.
Our trip home was a little more eventful that we might have hoped as we drove through a torrential downpour that left the interstate at a standstill. However, the storm passed as we ate lunch and we were able to drive the rest of the way home on the other side of the front…bringing the sunshine and good weather home with us! As we pulled into the parking lot to cheers and waves from loved ones, it was clear that we were returning as a different team. In fact, after unloading the vans and sorting out luggage, no one seemed to want to leave. Everyone was standing around sharing about the week and hugging each other and just enjoying being together. Typically at the end of trips, people are ready to bolt…not this time. As with everything else this week, it was different!
I wish I could put into words how encouraging and exciting this trip was for me. I wish I could give you a glimpse into my heart so you could see how full it is! Being in youth ministry makes you feel like a parent. Your heart aches when you students hurt. It rejoices when they succeed. You beam with pride and joy when you seem them growing in the Lord. This week my heart did all of those things, but mostly it marveled at God and at His goodness and at His love and at His plan. God’s ways are certainly not my ways and His thoughts are certainly not my thoughts. He is so far above and beyond what I can ask or imagine, and He showed that time after time on this trip. God is good, ALL THE TIME!

Final Thoughts on Kentucky 2017

This was an incredible trip. I have no doubt that hearts and lives were impacted in major ways. I could go through each student and talk about how I’ve seen God work in their life. I’m so proud of this team and their growth. As I wrap up the blog, I thought the best thing to do would be to exhort each team member, the way we did the last night on the trip. God has worked it incredible ways and I can’t wait to see how this trip is used in the future development and growth of the students and leaders.
Bill, thanks for your leadership and friendship. Your faith in the Lord and desire to share His love with others is so evident. Thanks for challenging me to be a better leader and always encouraging me. Continue to seek His will and to be bold with your life.
Kristen, way to go! I’m so proud of how you led on this trip and how you are leading with your life. God is going to continue to use you in powerful ways. Remember to always trust His goodness and be fearless in sharing your story. (Don’t forget who is always right either!)
Jacob, your transparency and growth on this trip has been incredible. I’m so excited to see how God continues to work in your heart. Thank you for pushing me to be more compassionate and for making me grow in my attitude as a youth pastor. Continue to keep your priorities in line and seek God with the passion and joy you’ve shown on this trip.
Sam, your joy is contagious. Thank you! Your openness gave everyone else permission to shine throughout the trip. Don’t underestimate the impact you have on those around you. God wants to use you to influence others for His kingdom, be willing to be used! Don’t stop!
“The” Jon Hill, your thoughtfulness and faith in choosing worship music all week inspires me. You truly embody what it means to serve by loving others. You are constantly looking at what the team needs and then take active steps to ensure that they get it! Keep trusting in the Lord and looking to Him for your strength.
Mikayla, I’m so encouraged by your growth. Your faith and honesty and willingness to trust God set the tone for the trip in the van and we never looked back. Continue to rely on His sufficiency in your life. Seek Him FIRST and then those things will be added. Invest down and don’t miss your opportunity to impact those below you. Finish strong!
Mike, your heart and love for the Lord and others challenges me on a regular basis. Thank you for being passionate about the Lord and about life. Remember to trust in His goodness and His plan and not to get down on what you see. Ask Him to give you His eyes to see this world as He does.
Miguel, you ROCK! Your willingness to serve and do things that never get noticed is wonderful. I saw God open your heart in so many ways on this trip. Don’t forget to trust Him and continue to be open and honest about what is happening in your heart. People REALLY enjoy seeing what’s inside of you. Love well and RISK for the Lord.
Olivia, your energy and love for the Lord is infectious. There were times that I didn’t want to do things but your energy and love were contagious and I found myself not just doing things, but enjoying doing them for the Lord because of you. Continue to seek His will for your life and don’t shy away from the big challenges He has placed before you. Honor Him in all that you do and let that light shine (don’t put it under a bush!).
Drew, you have so much more depth that you allow people to see. Continue to let your love for the Lord shine forth. Do not be ashamed to be called a Jesus freak or to proclaim the name of Christ! Your life is most full when it is lived for Him. Your exhortation and encouragement of Seth during team time at the lake is etched into my memory…what a beautiful testimony and challenge.
Corinne, your growth and leadership always encourage me so much. You have a strength and a faith inside of you that you don’t even realize yet. God has already used you in powerful ways and I have no doubt that He will use you in much larger ways in the future. Continue to seek His will and to put Him first in your life. Don’t doubt your faith and believe in His goodness and His plan.
Seth, I can’t begin to express how excited I have been by your growth on this trip. Your willingness to love the Lord and to choose to serve Him this week is a huge reason why our trip was as successful as it was. Keep being vulnerable and real with people and trust them with your burdens. Seek God’s goodness and honor him with your choices. As you return to “life,” don’t forget the joy and fullness that you found this week…cling to it and fight for it every day.
Kayla, thanks for being awesome and flexible and for letting your love for the Lord shine. Your leadership and encouraging spirit has made a profound impact on these kids. Continue to trust in the Lord for strength and know that His plan is perfect and much, much bigger than you might think. Dream big and trust Him!

Thanks for taking the time to read about our trip. God is so good and I am so blessed to be able to spend times like these with students like these. In closing, my prayer for you today is that God would breathe life into you today and that you would come to know and fall deeply in love with Him. If you don’t already know and experience God’s love on a daily basis, please ask me about it. I’d love to share with you what He has done in my life and how I believe you can have that fullness of joy as well!



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