THANK YOU (a note to Young Life and WyldLife leaders everywhere)

I love The Church.

I love Young Life.

(Much less than I love Jesus – but true love for both, nonetheless.)

During the past 15 years, in my work as a youth ministry trainer and cheerleader, I’ve said THANK YOU to countless youth pastors – thank you for loving our kids; thank you for all the unseen hours of ministry in your day; thank you from every parent who’s forgotten to say it, or who doesn’t understand why you do what you do; thank you from every adult in your congregation who watches from a safe (and often disinterested) distance; thank you from every teenager who grows up under your love and guidance; thank you for ushering in the next generation of The Church with dedication, energy, creativity, and passion; thank you for leaning in to your sacred calling with joy and grace; thank you for sticking with your vocation for the long race; thank you a thousand times over.

My single thank you can’t begin to express the true depth of those sentiments – but I offer it with sincerity.

During the past 25 years, in my role as a Young Life spouse (and other YL things), I’ve said THANK YOU to countless leaders – thank you for loving our kids; thank you for all the unseen hours of ministry in your day; thank you from every parent who’s forgotten to say it, or who doesn’t understand who you are and what you do; thank you from every adult in your community who watches from a safe (and often disinterested) distance; thank you from every teenager who sees and experiences the love of Jesus through you; thank you for believing that pursuing the most disinterested kid is worth your time; thank you for introducing teenagers to the God who created and loves them; thank you for leaning in to your sacred calling with joy and grace; thank you for sticking with your vocation for the long race; thank you a thousand times over.

My single thank you can’t begin to express the true depth of those sentiments – but I offer it with sincerity.

I also offer this – a real note from a real teenager written to a real person who was doing real ministry borne out of real passion flowing from real grace abiding in Real Love.

This camper articulated what countless kids truly experience but few actually express.

It’s good to reminded why you do what you do (because there are kids who need to be seen, noticed, befriended, loved, and introduced to the Savior). It’s good to remember what this ministry is really about (Jesus and teenagers…not me or us). It’s good to close your eyes and humbly remember that thank yous – as sweet as they are – aren’t the goal or the prize (that’s Jesus – always and only Jesus).

Even so, thank yous matter: so thank you. All of you. Each of you. A thousand times over. And more.

young-life-leader-card

[Young Life camper-written notecard, c. 2010. The leader’s name has been removed – but I sent that leader a picture of this card because, oh gracious, what depth of precious and sweet grace is wrapped up in these simple 25 words?! See your name in that big white space and ask Jesus to steer you towards the kids who currently feel as this one did, because that is who we are and what we do.]

 

 

When camp is over: thoughts on going home

I suppose that on this day, and last week, and next week, and all throughout this summer, tens of thousands of people will at some point go home from having worked and served at camp.

Substitute “mission trip” or “service project” for “camp” and add tens of thousands more to the tally.

Re-entry into real life for campers can be tricky to navigate – metaphorically speaking, anyway. Thanks to Siri and smart phones, it’s been ages since I’ve heard of anyone actually getting lost going to or leaving from camp, which is a good thing, but also has eliminated some of the camp adventure factor. I’m nostalgic about the lack of atlases on long road trips.

But re-entry for camp workers and servers is often even trickier to navigate, for at least several reasons: we were at camp for a long time; we lived in a large community of fellow workers/servers; we are going home to a family that doesn’t understand or buy into similar beliefs and motivations; we face challenges and difficulties at home that will make ‘living out my faith’ less normative and less, well, let’s say ‘glamorous’ for lack of a better term.

Working at camp and serving campers is a thousand times more exciting, motivating, and satisfying than being at home and serving family, friends, and neighbors.

For one thing, there is always music playing in the background. Loudly. (Unless it’s time for reflection, in which case it’s perfectly subdued.)

For another, there is a large cadre of fellow workers/servers to carry you forward, pump you up, and cheer you on. (And sometimes one who gets under your skin and you secretly wish would decide to give up, throw in the towel, call it quits, and get on out of there.)

Throw in some daily devos, adventurous movie-set-ish surroundings, and some regular one-on-one mentoring from a cool and winsome young adult (or a formerly cool, winsome-ish older adult), and it’s easy to see why the thought of ‘going home’ doesn’t always lead to a song and dance.

But home is real. Home is where life happens. Home is where Jesus is, lives, and waits to walk through life with us. Home is sacred. Home is real. Home is blessed (even when it’s not). Home is where the biggest miracles of all happen.

Home is where we are challenged and learn to do the most difficult things of all.

Yes, getting up at 6:00 a.m. every morning to cook for 5oo people is challenging and difficult. But learning to be gracious and kind, every single morning regardless of how early or late it is, to the person in your family that regularly drives you to the edge of rationality — that is a miracle of home.

Yes, learning to work as a unified group with 8 other distinct people (read: love some, could take or leave some, can’t stand some) every day for a month or a summer is challenging and difficult and requires you to ask for the Lord’s grace and patience each and every morning (for a month or a summer, that is). But learning to work and live as a unified group with however many other people are in your household or dorm for the rest of your time living therethat is a miracle of home.

Yes, pushing through the days when you are tired and frustrated and just want to give up or slow down or push off is challenging and difficult and requires you to dig deep down into your soul’s reserves of strength and commitment. But learning to push through the days when you are tired and frustrated with the everyday, mundane, boring, non-camp-ish, adventure-less (we think), pointless (we assume), blahblahblah (we snivel) details of life for the rest of your life — that is a miracle of home.

It’s not hard to be changed at camp. It happens all the time.

Being changed for life – that’s the point. That’s what God wants for us. That’s what Jesus does for us…if we are willing to surrender and serve and listen and obey when we get back home, just like we did when we were at camp.

Big things happen at camp. People are transformed. People meet Jesus. People fall in love with God. People work harder than they ever worked before.

But really big things happen at home. We learn to obey. We learn to listen. We learn to exercise patience. We learn to extend grace. We learn to love, deeply, truly, impossibly, faithfully, and without end.

Do not miss the miracles of home once you’ve left camp. If you do, you will also lose all the miracles of camp, and that would be a tragedy indeed.

 

Young Lives Day Six: mamas, babies, friends, farewell, the finish line

They pulled out of camp this morning, all of those precious mamas and babies with their faithful and loving mentors.

Our hearts are full – full of joy for all those we met and loved; full of sadness for having to say goodbye; full of thanks for having been part of this amazing week; full of sorrow for the many young mamas and babies in this world who are not surrounded by a circle of loving and caring people; full of laughter for the fun and games and play we shared this week; full of tears for the broken world in which we live; full of hope because of Jesus.

We packed it all up today – all those highchairs and booster seats and pack-n-plays and swings and tricycles and changing pads and napping mats and carpets and blocks and sippy cups and dolls and trucks and playhouses and kiddie pools and blankets and toys and strollers.

It feels like just yesterday – and last year – that we were first staging the strollers for their arrival.

YLives strollers

And already today we lined them up, washed them down, and stored them away for another year.

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Those strollers rolled many miles this week, ’round and ’round the lake, up and down the walkways, back and forth across the halls.

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Photo: Crystal Kirgiss, 2016
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Photo: Crystal Kirgiss, 2016

We cleared off the clotheslines, which looked different than most other weeks at a Young Life camp what with all the tiny little bodies creeping, crawling, and toddling hereabouts.

young lives clotheline
Photo: Crystal Kirgiss, 2016

We took our final walks through the silent prayer labyrinth of trees, soaking up the beauty of God’s creation, considering what He would speak to our hearts this week as we served – which was, in truth, a secondary task (such a difficult reality for those who “feel called to serve”) to hearing from and listening intently to His voice.

prayer trees
Photo: Crystal Kirgiss, 2016

We waved goodbye (and sometimes…often…hugged and held and cradled and cooed and said, “Gracious, you are a beautiful creation of God, you and your mama both, indeed you are!) to the many faces and fingers and hearts we met and loved this week.

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Photo: Crystal Kirgiss, 2016
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Photo: Crystal Kirgiss, 2016

And we felt a little piece of our own hearts pull out of camp this morning with all those mamas and babies and mentors – because how could it be otherwise? When the Lord sends love and grace into a person’s life, how can we do anything but respond with surprise, wonder, and a breathtaking gasp of joy?

The Lord was here this week. And He did mighty things.

But the Lord is also on busses, and in vans, and in cars, and back home, and absolutely everywhere.

We would do well to remember this as we ourselves pull out of camp today and tonight and tomorrow. We were privileged enough to watch – and even be a very tiny small part of God’s big amazing work here this week. Like the disciples thousands of years ago, we were invited to distribute the abundance of his love and mercy to a hungry crowd. He did the work – we simply passed it around, as faithfully and lovingly as we know how.

And now, when the week is done, we – like the disciples thousands of year ago – have been instructed to get back in the boat and go back…back home, back to the other side, back to where we came from, back to work, back to school, back to responsibility, back to daily life.

This was a powerful and amazing week indeed… because God was here. Let’s not forget that God is also here and there and everywhere, and so our service and love and kindness and caring must continue long past the moment we pull away from this place.

Young Lives is a bright and brilliant reflection of God’s love, as so many other things are.

Thank you, childcare workers, for serving so well this week.

Thank you, mentors, for loving your girls and their babies for such long and faithful weeks, months, and years.

Thank you, work staff for pulling out all the stops during this final week of your assignment.

Thank you, camp staff, for once again laying the table for the rest of us to both feast at and serve from. It took everyone to make this week happen.

But it took only God to make it real and sacred.

Bless the Lord, oh my soul – and may He bless the mamas and babies, wherever they are right now.

Young Lives Day Four and Five: from nametags to strollers to friendship to love

Young Lives Camp, Day Five.

It feels like a year has passed since the childcare workers first arrived and made nametags –

nametags

like months have passed since we first unloaded the storage closet –

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Photo: Mark Kirgiss, 2016

 

and like weeks have passed since we first met mamas and babies.

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Photo: Crystal Kirgiss, 2016

Indeed, a week of Young Lives camp cannot be measured in real time. There are too many joys, too many tears, too much laughter, too much crying, too much playing, too much resting, and too much life to measure in days, hours, or minutes.

A week of Young Lives contains a lifetime of love, hope, friendship, and in the end, family.

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Photo: Mark Kirgiss, 2016

The childcare workers (gracious, yes) do indeed fall in love with each and every baby, toddler, and child they care for – not as deeply in love as the mamas (gracious, no), but in love nonetheless.

There are countless circles of love here at Young Lives camp: mamas for the babies, babies for the mamas, mentors for the mamas, work staff for the campers, childcare workers for the babies, childcare workers for each other. Each circle is a community of belonging and a family of hope.

All of these circles matter deeply. It is not just the love for babies that carries the day here at Young Lives – though that love is glorious indeed.

But it is primarily – solely and only, in fact – God’s love for fallen, broken, sorry, and undeserving humanity (each and every one of us) that carries the day. His love is why we care. His love is why we have hope. His love is why we wake each day. His love is why we are here. His love is why we live.

His love is why we love.

Young Lives Day Three: sippy cups, cereal, carnival lights, and love

In some ways, Young Lives camp looks entirely different from Young Life camp. The tables are set with these:

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Many of the breakfast Cheerios end up here:

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There  are people pushing strollers all over camp:

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There are also tricycles, scooters, pedal-cars, and pedal-tractors at every turn. Add to that pack-n-plays, crates of diapers, changing tables, swings, tiny tables and chairs, napping cots, bottles, sippy cups, diaper bags, onesies, baby wipes, building blocks, exer-saucers, and a thousand other things, and it would be easy to assume that Young Lives camp is nothing like Young Life camp.

But that would be a wrong assumption.

Because at Young Lives camp, things like this still happen:

And that leads to this:

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A genuine, bonafide, Young Life carnival, which is the perfect way for a young mama to end a wondrous day because – just like every other teen who visits this sacred slice of creation – she has come to experience the best week of her life. And we are going to do our best to give it to her, because that’s what love does.

 

 

Young Lives Day Two: 2,820 fingers and toes

There are 141 tinies and littles with us at camp this week. At about noon today, it dawned on me: that equates to 2,820 tiny fingers and little toes.

We are overwhelmed with digits.

How long has it been since you’ve seen or held tiny fingers or little toes? If you want to catch your breath with the wonder that is called life, baby fingers and toes are where it’s at. They are marvelous in their delicacy, astounding in their beauty, delightful in their miniature completeness.

These particular 2,820 fingers and toes are especially wonderful because we have been entrusted with their care for just a tiny sliver of time, six short days. We have been called to be the hands and feet of Jesus to the tinies and littles who are the embodiment of 2,820 fingers and  toes.

We get to gaze at these miracles every day and be awestruck by God’s love, God’s creation, God’s goodness, and God’s deep desire to welcome each and every one of his children home – children both young and old.

These 2,820 fingers and toes are a reminder of Who made us, Who loves us, and Whose we are. These wonders of creation are … well, quite frankly, they are unbelievable. Truly.

If the fingers and toes of a tiny or a little do not stop you in your tracks, reach deep into your soul, then catch and hold your heart, then it might be time to gaze at them a little more closely.

[Photos: Crystal Kirgiss, 2016, Timberwolf Lake]

Young Lives Day One: what most people don’t see

They arrived today – cars and vans and busses of young mamas, babies, and mentors (who are women of courage, strength, and faith that none can describe fully or faithfully).

We are off and running, and the race is going to be exhilarating as these young women are introduced to love, grace, joy, and eternal reconciliation.

This week happens, in large part, because of things that are seen by only a few people, things that are astoundingly and breathtakingly beautiful –

things like moving over 100 strollers from under the rainy skies to under the dry porch to wait for their first passenger to arrive … sometimes the weather is drizzly, you see

things like stacking highchairs and patiently vacuuming a dining hall where 100 tinies and littles just ate dinner with their mamas … sometimes the food flies, you see

things like wiping down sticky booster chairs in which 50 toddlers just ate dinner with their mamas … sometimes the food spills, you see

things like holding a little for the very first time while her mama heads off for an evening of laughter, fun, and whimsical play … sometimes the littles need some encouragement, you see

things like letting a tiny snuggle in close so she can sleep peacefully, safely, and contentedly until her mama returns with a wide embrace … sometimes the tinies just need a safe and warm place, you see

things like comforting a little while he rests in a new place for the very first time … sometimes everyone needs a reassuring presence, you see.

These are the unseen things that make this week possible – these and a thousand others like them.

Our God is a God of grace, and He has surely filled this place and these people with grace unbounding. He has breathed Himself into this air and into these lives.

The miracles of joy have just begun.

 

 

Young Lives Camp, Day Zero: getting ready for mamas and babies

[*note: Young Lives is the a Young Life ministry for teen mothers]

This week in Michigan, in a little tiny corner of the world known as Timberwolf Lake, a group of people are getting ready for the arrival of 100-plus teen mamas … and their babies.

Yesterday, one little tiny spot in this little tiny corner of the world looked like this:

YLives no strollers

It’s a lovely place indeed, a place where many people hear the beautiful truth about Jesus Christ and God’s love.

But this week, it’s especially beautiful, because this week, it looks like this:

YLives strollers

In one short day, this place – intended primarily for teenagers without babies – has been transformed into a place absolutely and perfectly and completely intended for teenagers with babies.

I wish I could describe the transformation. Pack-n-Plays, high-chairs, booster seats, napping cots, tricycles, bouncy chairs, swings, kiddie pools, blocks, toys, toys, toys, blankets, sheets, diapers, snacks, juice, rocking chairs, and so much more. It all must be unloaded, unpacked, sorted, washed, organized, and delivered to twelve – yes, twelve different nursery spaces.

But it’s always the strollers that get me – those colorful, joyful, inviting, ready-to-roll strollers. They are the first thing the mamas will see when they climb out of a car, van, or bus. The strollers, saying, “We are ready for you. We’ve been waiting for you. We welcome you. We love you.”

Those are powerful words for a young mama to hear.

But they are not the most important worlds they will hear this week. These are: you are loved by a God who is not just a father but also a mother, like –

an eagle who hovers over its young
a hen who gathers her chicks under her wings
a comforting mother
one who gives birth to the dew and the frost.

 

Most breathtaking of all, when in the very beginning God breathed the breath of life into humans and made them living creatures, he was like a mother, for that breath (neshamah) is derived from an older word nasham, a verb that means “to pant, especially of a woman in travail or labour.” It shows up in Isaiah 42:14 where the LORD, marching forth like a mighty hero, will say:

I have long been silent; yes, I have restrained myself. But now, like a woman in labor, I will cry and groan and pant.

The LORD – our father God – like a woman in labor.

Gracious. Mercy. Astounding.

This week, 100-plus young mamas are going to learn about that God – the God who loves them, the God who became human to demonstrate that love, the God who offers new life, the God who created all life, the God who breathes life into us, the God who hovers, gathers, comforts, and gives birth to all that is.

Bless the LORD, oh my soul, for being just exactly what and who each one of us needs.

 

 

 

 

How to make a cereal wallet

This is a cereal wallet. 

  
Actually, that is a trio of cereal wallets, which are in fact cereal box wallets – or even more precisely, pieces-of-cereal-boxes wallets, but who’s got time for such a sloggy name? “Cereal wallet” is perfectly concise and zingy. 

This is how to make a cereal wallet:

1. Cut two pieces from a cereal box that are this size (a litter bigger than a credit card, driver’s license, hotel room key, school ID, or Starbucks card) –

  
 2. Clip out a triangle from one of the cereal box pieces like this –

  
Don’t fret about perfection. Just snip-snip.

3. On a sewing machine, zig-zag around the edges like this –

  
 You know all those ridiculous colors you’ve accumulated over the years from altering bridesmaid dresses and patching baby clothes? This is your chance to use them all up. Finally. Forever. 

Be sure to do that forward-backward-forward thing (that probably has an official name) when you start and stop sewing, like this – 

  
4. Put something precious in the wallet, like a photo or a Starbucks card or a handwritten note or a dollar, like this –

  
Cereal wallets are the perfect kitschy and inexpensive token of you-are-awesome-ness. 

Important: cereal wallets are suitable for framing, public display, holding a dollar, and carrying in your pocket – but don’t swim with them. They will disintegrate. 

The end. 

You’re welcome. 

 

Clearwater Cove Day 0

CWC yl hands

In less than 24 hours, several hundred middle school students and leaders will descend on a sacred place in the Ozarks for the very first week of summer camp at Young Life’s Clearwater Cove.

Most of the world knows absolutely nothing about this.

But a very small sliver of the world – and all of God himself – knows very well what is about to happen here: fun, love, Jesus, grace, hope, and real life.

While much of society is bemoaning the current trends and behaviors of teenagers, twenty high school students have given up a month of their summer to willingly, enthusiastically, and joyfully serve middle school students at this sacred place nestled atop a mountain of rock. No joke. These people right here are people you should know. They are going to change the world – while they are still in HS – because they are serving the very God who made the world.

CWC work crew

In the midst of depressing headlines, deadly conflicts, and desperate situations, these twenty high schoolers (and 36 college students, and so many others) are choosing hope, life, love, joy, forgiveness, and transformation.

God does that. He gets hold of a person’s heart, flips it upside down and inside out, remakes it into something  alive, and sends it out into the wide world to be light and love, salt and sweet aromas, in order to draw others into his infinitely welcoming arms.

I don’t know what you’re doing this summer. But these folks here, and countless others like them across the US and the world, are doing something big and bold and beautiful: they are being obedient, they are being humble, they are serving, they are giving, they are considering others as more important than themselves – and because of that, God is going to do mighty things. I have no doubt.

Clearwater Cove, tucked away in a corner of God’s overwhelmingly breathtaking creation, is ready to fling wide open its doors and welcome teenagers to a week they will never forget. Gracious sakes – the work of celebration and the celebration of work have just begun, and for many people, life will never be the same again.