Pressing In

Originally published on July 13, 2018 at www.melissajmacdonald.com 

For the last 7 summers I have done camp ministry. I travel from camp to camp as a speaker to kids. I love it. By the end of this summer I will have done a total of 39 camps in 7 years.

Yes, I absolutely love the kids. I love speaking to them. I love helping make the Bible come alive to them, I love pointing them to Jesus, I love hearing their stories, I love journeying with them. It is a blessing.

These camps, however, always involve more than just kids. Inevitably, I end up sitting on a porch or deck or bench talking to adults. The staff who help make these camps run every week are amazing. They’re also people. They have their own hurts and struggles. I cannot tell you just how much I love talking to them, hearing their stories and speaking into their stories. A lot of my conversations are with adults in their late teens into their 20’s.

This year, I have been sensing a theme in the counsel I give these young adults. If I could put it into one sentence it would be this, “stop making stupid choices and start pressing into Jesus.” Profound right? Mind blowing. I should hang a shingle and do this for a living.

Let me preface what I say next by saying I don’t want to make light of anyone’s story. Our stories are hard. We live in a sinful world. Horrible things happen to us and are a part of what shapes us. Good and bad. I would never make light of the hard in anyone’s story. That being said, as I’ve been talking to young people I, quite unexpectedly, began to believe the same lies that they’ve been believing. “Life is hard, it’s just too hard to stick with Jesus. The world pulls at me and I try, I really do, but I keep losing.” “I sin because I can’t help it.” “I want Jesus, but I just can’t find him.”  I actually feel like I began to become numb to what they were telling me. Not that I didn’t hear it or care, because I do. However, I found myself going numb to their messaging. I didn’t even realize it, but I was buying it and I was discouraged. I even found myself thinking, “it is hard, it’s too hard. The cycle can’t end.” And, “maybe I’m just an exception, maybe I’m not normal.”

Then I had an encounter that put a spotlight on all of the icky and the dark I was buying into.

I talked to a 19-year-old girl at a camp recently. After I talked about hurt people hurting people and how we can stop the cycle (Pineapple People, for those who are aware), she waited until I talked to the line of campers eager to share their story and pray with me and then she came up and sat by me sobbing. I patted her arm and let her cry. She looked at me through her tears and her eyes had an undeniable look of joy. She poured out her story to me. Her story was tough, I mean really tough. Possibly one of the hardest I have heard recently. Divorced parents, multiple ugly custody battles, suicidal thoughts, suicidal attempts, abuse, anger, brokenness, etc.

She poured it all out and I just listened. It was beautiful. Don’t get me wrong, it was heart breaking and it was so messy, but it was beautiful. You see, this 19-year-old had joy in the midst of her story. Instead of being bogged down with excuses and apologies and martyrdom she was clinging to Jesus and He was making her story beautiful. With tears in her eyes she beamed at me and said, “I’ve come to the realization this year that I cannot do life without my Jesus. I just cannot do it. I need him.”.

She found Jesus through the love of a church, a youth group, a friend, and a youth conference. She spent her freshman year at a secular college. Instead of allowing the world to pull her away she pushed into Jesus. She told me, “After about 2 weeks I realized I couldn’t do it without my Jesus. I needed him with me. So, I tried to spend about 90 minutes every day (or week, because #collegelife) talking to Jesus. I journaled, I read my Bible, I talked to him.” She made it through her first year of college and came out loving Jesus more. MORE, not less.

Her summer is hard. Really hard. Family is tough and she, like all of us, desperately longs for parents who genuinely care about her and act like parents. She’s sad, she’s mourning, but she’s growing closer to Jesus. Does that not just bless your heart? I’m still over here smiling about it. I love this girl. More importantly, I love what she reminded me of. We serve a BIG God who pursues us and longs to be in deep relationship with us. He is, however, beautifully a gentleman and will not force himself on us. He doesn’t move, we move. He doesn’t quit, we do. He doesn’t give up, we do. He is there waiting to lavish his love on us. Oh, that we would press into Him. It’s not easy, but very few good things ever are. He redeems, He renews, and He creates beauty out of ashes all the time.

I want to be more like this girl. I want to press into Jesus more. I want to say proudly, “I cannot do life without my Jesus.”

You guys, at the risk of sounding simplistic, all you need is Jesus. He is more than enough. He’s there waiting for you. Now, it’s up to us to stop wallowing in our sin, in our past, in our mistakes, in the shadow of our story and start pressing into Him. Passivity in our relationship with Jesus has us circling the same issues day after day, year after year. You have all the power of the Holy Spirit available to you. Press into it, allow Him to fill you, allow Him to change your patterns and start writing new patterns for you.  Let’s stop making stupid choices and start pressing into Jesus.

Don’t Take Yourself So Seriously

I’ve been guilty of it so many times, thinking I’m in charge of my event. Thinking if I’m not there then there is no possible way the show can go on. I’ve lived with fear gripping my heart that I haven’t done enough or I haven’t done well enough or I just haven’t done “it” (whatever that elusive “it” is). I’ve had those moments staring into the eyes of my audience knowing I’m bombing and not knowing how to fix it. I’ve walked away from days fully aware we had a loss. I’ve had my stomach turn and my heart be heavy knowing it just didn’t work.

Can anyone out there relate?

The older I get (geez, I sound ancient) the more I realize I’m very small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I’d like to think I matter but I’m realizing more and more that while I’m important and God desires to use me he certainly doesn’t need me. In fact, let’s be honest, there are times I’m quite sure God has simply worked around me to accomplish his purposes. He hasn’t shoved me out of the way but neither has he needed me.

In ministry there is this very convenient trap we can fall into (some of us simply jump right into the trap). This trap tells us that things rise and fall on us. We’re in ministry so we’re important. After all, we’re doing the Lord’s work. There are two sides to this trap. We can fall into despair. So, if our VBS doesn’t have the right numbers, it’s our fault. If our summer camp volunteers aren’t awesome, it’s our fault. If our kid’s programs don’t attract new families, it’s on us. The flip side of that is pride. So, when 20 kids find Jesus at VBS, it’s because of us. When 5 new families make our church their church home, it’s because of us. When a program runs smoothly and accomplishes exactly what we want it to, it’s our win. On either side we’re not only taking ourselves too seriously, we’re putting ourselves in God’s spot.

Pause. Anyone else see a problem with that?

You guys, we’re not God. I know, I know I’m blowing you away with the wisdom I’m dropping right now. Think about it, we are not God. We were never once created in God’s image to be God. We were created to reflect him, not take the place of him. Stop it. Stop taking yourself so seriously. It’s his ministry, it’s his kids, it’s his church, it’s his job, it’s about him, not about you.

I just finished up my 39th camp as a camp speaker. I have one more to go this summer. I’ve learned a few things in 39 camps and in almost 15 years of full-time ministry (geez, I am old).

  1. I take myself too seriously. There is a difference between being prepared and then over preparing to the degree that I agonize and navel gaze until I couldn’t hear the Holy Spirit even if he was yelling at me. I try to be prepared as possible and as interruptible as possible. It’s His show, it’s not mine. I won’t get up there unprepared but neither will I get up there gripping my notes so tightly I can’t open my hands in a surrender that says “use me”.
  2. Inevitably my feelings will lie to me. At least one night at every camp I walk away feeling like I bombed. Every. Single. Week. I go back to my room or cabin knowing the whole night was “eh”. I’ve come to expect it now. Now that I know what to expect it doesn’t make me nearly as sick to my stomach. I’m prepared for it. I’m also fully aware that, based on experience, it is most often the nights where I don’t feel good about how it went that God moved powerfully. It’s the most beautiful reminder that he doesn’t need me. So I pitch my feelings at God’s feet, tell Satan “not today!”, and rest in the knowledge that what I can’t see or feel is 100 times more important than what I can see or feel.
  3. I’m called to obedience not splashiness. As a speaker in my flesh wants to be flashy. I want to be remembered and noticed. I want people to say, “nobody else is as good as Miss Mel”. I’ve spent my moments wishing I knew magic tricks or could make a fountain by spraying water out of my nose or ANYTHING exciting. And then I remember, I’m not called to be splashy, I’m called to be obedient. So I get up there and I do me. I use the gifts and talents God’s graciously given me and I obediently use them to point back to him. I remember that flash fades but obedience puts me in the humble and right position where they forget me and remember him.
  4. God is weaving the bigger picture I may never see. I was 5 years old when at a VBS somebody used a puppet to tell the story of Jesus and I chose to start a relationship with him that night. I never told the person behind the puppet, I don’t even know who was behind the puppet, but God used them to change my life forever. When we work with kids we’re planting seeds and making impressions in wet cement that we will most likely never see. In Hebrews 11 it talks about the great men and women of faith and it says that all of them died still not seeing all God had promised. They were known for their faith in the journey, not the outcome. I’m convinced that faithfulness looks a lot more like putting one foot in front of the other in obedience and a lot less like one good moment at a camp or an event. It’s about the day to day. It’s about trusting that the good God I serve is weaving something much bigger in the lives of those I speak to. For some, I’m just another voice. For others, I might be the voice that plants a seed that changes their life forever. And it’s ok if I never know.

Sometimes I write blogs that are aimed directly at myself. So, I’m preaching to myself today and allowing you to listen in. The theme of my summer has been to not take myself so seriously. I want to be prepared and obedient and honest and then I want to step back and let God do the rest of the work. God doesn’t need me. He will accomplish what he desires to accomplish, with or without me. So I give myself permission to go for a swim during free time with the kiddos instead of agonizing over every detail of my message. I call my boyfriend (I may be old but that makes me sound like I’m 14) instead of wasting my time worrying about how the night went. I sleep better at night knowing that God does the work. I’m learning to chill a little more, rest a little easier, and trust my sweet Jesus even more. Join me?

 

*originally published on www.melissajmacdonald.com 

Broken Beauty

I noticed him the very first day at camp. He sat to my right as I spoke to the kids. He sat alone and was in a fairly isolated spot on the floor. As a seasoned camp speaker I’ve learned to ignore a lot of things when I’m speaking. This little guy with a mohawk seemed to hear his own music. While I was speaking he would slowly rotate his arms around his head as if conducting his own music. Every now and then he would twitch. He was not disruptive but he was noticed, by me.

I learned a long time ago that kids rarely look like they are listening and yet most often they are listening. The little guy in my audience gave absolutely no indication that he was listening let alone comprehending anything I was saying. I’ve also learned not to judge a person’s story by their behavior. I knew he had a story and I wondered….

This girl shared her story with me halfway through the week. With her permission I shared some if it on Instagram:

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“I started doing Marijuana with my cousins when I was 7. On the Res everyone did drugs, it’s different there. I would deliver drugs to my aunt but I didn’t know the package was drugs. I just thought she wanted to see me, but no. I’ve been in about 200 foster homes. The parent I’m closest to is my dad but now he’s in prison for life and doesn’t want me. My mom is in prison too and she doesn’t want me either. At age 10 I started doing hardcore drugs. I didn’t know it wasn’t ok. I didn’t know it could harm you. Then I started going to church and was told God loved me no matter what and my back story didn’t change God’s love. I was sent here to camp as a punishment and it worked (I hate that my foster parents were right!). I started a relationship with Jesus last night. I feel happy, I feel different. I want to do good things now.”

This 12 year old broke me as she told me her story this morning. I mean broke me. Puddle on the floor. Her favorite word is Emmanuel “because it means God’s always with me. Always.” She’s been clean from drugs and cutting for 2 months. God is doing a new thing in her.

One of our counselors shared his story of God’s redemptive work in his life yesterday morning and it connected with her story and God used it. Leaders, please don’t ever forget to share your stage and give others a space to share their story. It is so not about us.

I grabbed this little one’s face, looked her in the eye and blessed her. Not because it was comfortable or easy but because God told me to do it. “I bless you for your bravery, I bless you for sharing your story. May you know deep in your soul that you are loved and never alone. May you never forget that God has redeemed you and called you by name. I bless you as you begin to see God weave beauty out of your messy story. You are worthwhile and you are loved.” And then she went inside and Miss Mel had a very messy breakdown.

Through the course of her sharing her story I put together that her little brother was also at camp and that her brother was my little mohawk kid. She rushed to assure me, “he’s had it a lot easier than me. He’s only 9 and he’s only been in two foster homes.” She told me he had recently been diagnosed with autism. Before she shared some of her story with the camp the next morning. I asked her if her brother would be ok with her sharing. She told me he wouldn’t understand any of it.

I kept my eye on that little mohawk kid. I learned his name and watched him interact (or not interact) with other kids. There was no question he had some difficulties. His speech seemed to be severely limited. I actually never heard him talk. I knew that although his sister thought he had had it easier he had been significantly affected by his home life and present abandonment. Of course, my heart broke.

Towards the end of camp he came up to me while we were swimming and we “talked” briefly. He floated in his life jacket and just beamed at me. He seemed content to just be near me. Of course, he stole my heart.

The last day of camp kids were sharing what God had taught them that week. I had a long line of kids up front sharing. I did a double take when Little Mohawk was at the end of the line. I went through 20 kids and in the back of my head I wondered how I was going to handle him. I knew he couldn’t talk and I wasn’t sure why he was up front. He was the last kid to go and I treated him the same way I had every other kid. I said his name and asked him, “what’s God been teaching you this week?”. I held my breath as he smiled at me and his mouth struggled to form words. It seemed the whole camp held their breath because there was silence until he burst out with the word, “love!”. It wasn’t entirely clear but everyone could identify the word. I repeated “love” and he smiled and bobbed his head at me. Without prompting the entire group did a little gasp and started cheering and clapping for him. He smiled until I thought his face would break.

As he walked off stage I took a minute to compose myself. When I turned back around he had grabbed his stuff and moved to sit in the very middle of the room surrounded by kids. And he kept smiling.

I had to leave camp right after that last chapel. Kids were high fiving and hugging me goodbye. Little Mohawk came up to me still smiling. I opened my arms and he dove in and gave me a huge hug. I hugged him back and held my tears.

As I drove away from that camp tears ran down my face as I thought of Little Mohawk. As I praised the God of miracles. As I marveled over moments like that. As I whispered to Jesus, “could I please do this forever?”.

To all who mourn in Israel, he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair. In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks that the LORD has planted for his own glory. Isaiah 61:3

 

originally posted on melissajmacdonald.com 

4 Questions for Evaluating an Event

You FINALLY reach the end of an event and you collapse at your desk in exhaustion. You’re surprised you can even find your desk after having to navigate around pool noodles, googly eyes, stacks of books, and a pizza box that has been there since sometime last month…..or was it the month before that? 

A tiny hysterical laugh comes out of your mouth and you quickly clap your hand over your lips. Nobody should be that happy that the event is over. 

Your office door cracks open and the last woman to leave is that woman. The one who bustles in looking like she’s as fresh as a spring daisy. She’s carrying bags of who knows what. She beams at you and says, “oh my goodness, what a precious time this has been! I can not wait until next year! Sign me up now!” She then places the bags she’s been carrying on the last empty floor space and skips (yes, skips! The woman is actually skipping!) out of your office humming the song you haven’t been able to get out of your head all week. 

You put your head down on your desk, narrowly missing the gob of silly putty, and allow yourself to give way to semi-hysterical laughter. The only thought you have in your overwhelmed exhausted head is, “next year, the woman said next year….”. 

Okay, we’ve all been there. Whether we’re talking about VBS, a 9 month mid-week program, camp, Easter, or even just one of “those” Sundays…. we’ve been there. We’ve survived to the end of it and somebody needs to prop us up on the couch with an ice cream sundae and a good book because we deserve it. And you truly do.

I don’t know about you but when I reach the end of something the last thing I want to do is look back. If I survived I want to move into recovery and celebration. I do not want to watch the replay version and critique myself and the event. However, that is exactly what I need to do.

As much as I hate evaluating I have found it to be invaluable. Absolutely invaluable.

It’s takes intentionality and preparation. I begin thinking about evaluating before the event actually happens. With VBS I put our evaluation meeting on the calendar before we even start VBS. It’s that important.

So dear kidmin, stumin, fammin, or just plain min peeps I encourage you to evaluate. Gather your team and talk about it. For VBS we’ll give every one of our volunteers an evaluation and then we’ll pull the leadership team together to go through them and our own evaluations. We make notes and when it comes around to start planning the event again we pull those notes out. It’s shocking that the things I’m sure I will never forget, (like the fact that we didn’t turn the air on soon enough one day and it got over 90 in the sanctuary) that surely are burned into my memory FOREVER, are quickly forgotten. God’s mercy? Perhaps.

Always, always, always look for the God moments as you evaluate. It’s easy to look at what went wrong, what didn’t run smoothly, where we failed. It’s much more of a treasure hunt to see God at work in the midst of our failures. Not only will looking for those God moments bless your heart, they communicate to your team that He’s the most important aspect of the event. Help your team mine for the nuggets of God’s blessings. Point to Him as you evaluate.

evaluation

4 great evaluation questions:

1. What aspect(s) of this event did you think went GREAT!?

2. What aspect(s) of this event could have gone better?

3. As a leadership team, how could we have better equipped you to have an amazing experience serving our kids (teens, adults, families, etc)?

4. Where did you see God at work (in your life, the life of a kid, the life of someone else) in this event?

Keep it simple, keep it short, keep it pointed on the ONE who, blessedly, doesn’t ever fail and who always is at work regardless of what we do well or….not so well.

And PS. Leave your office a mess, go home, kiss your family, crawl into bed with ice cream, and relax. Evaluation is best done 2-4 weeks after the event, and after you’ve had some sleep.