This week marks the beginning of the Gospel Project, a local missions program my church hosts every summer. Participants live together for two months and lead Vacation Bible Schools in low-income apartment complexes, host community events, and get intensive ministry and theology training. This is the first time since 2015 that I won’t be involved with the Gospel Project, and thus I’ve been reflecting a bit on what I’ve learned from it over the years. 2018, in particular, was a significant year for me, one in which God helped me take vital steps in recognizing who I am in him.
2015 and 2018 were the only years I did the GP full time, and they were vastly different experiences. In 2015, I had been at my church for less than a year, I was eager to please and nervous about fitting in, and I was determined that I would persevere in doing whatever was required of me. So after a month of being out in 100 degree weather (which greatly exacerbated by eczema), doing two VBS’s a day along with other ministry events (which drained my introvert soul and was ill-fitting for my giftings), and daily having to choose between getting alone time and getting enough sleep, I was emotionally and physically bankrupt. At our mid-way retreat, I talked to my pastor about this, and he very kindly and wisely advised me to adjust the work I was doing to better suit my gifting and temperament. I didn’t have to stick to the same ministry plan as everyone else. So I started doing solitary office work in the afternoons and doing more meal preparation for the group, and my spirits improved.
So by 2018, I knew what my role in the GP should be. No VBS’s, no significant outdoor time, only one block party a week instead of two. While everyone else went out, I stayed back and prepped the materials for their next event: I put together their activity tubs, made copies of handouts, bought snacks, etc. And this was great, I felt useful and competent, and I had flexibility to do other things that were important to me. At the same time, I felt socially distant from the group. I was older than most of the participants, I was more reserved, and I wasn’t sharing the bulk of their experiences.
It wasn’t surprising, then, that only a few days into the GP, God began saying something to me, something which would be repeated many, many times that summer.
“Jesus is my validation.”
That was my sentence for the summer.
If someone misunderstands my intentions and calls me out, and I don’t know how to make things right, Jesus is my validation.
If someone I’m attracted to favors someone else, Jesus is my validation.
If I go to Mardel and break the lamination machine, as well as the employee who comes to help me, Jesus is my validation.
If the printer at our office explodes on me, literally covering the room with ink powder, Jesus is my validation.
If I over-cook the team’s dinner, Jesus is my validation.
You get my point.
I didn’t need people’s approval. I didn’t need to fit in. I didn’t need to do things perfectly. My validation eternally stands before the Father in the heavenly places, “His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where he is there I shall be also.” (Martin Luther) What did anything else matter?
If you’ve been following my posts, you will have seen that I come back to Matthew 11 a lot. I had been familiar with this passage for a long time, but it took on a different meaning for me sometime around late 2016/early 2017. I was having a really hard time, and in the midst of that a few people responded to my pain with cold advise and admonitions about improving my Christian character. These responses angered and upset me; I felt they were inappropriate but couldn’t point out exactly why.
Then I happened to be reading in Matthew 11. Jesus says:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
So over the years I had learned that Jesus was gentle and lowly in heart, and that when people came and laid their burdens down in front of me, I needed to be gentle and lowly with them, just as I wished those people had been with me back then. I wanted to be a place where people could find rest for their souls.
But in 2018, God said to me, “You’ve learned to be gentle and lowly with others, now can you be so with yourself?”
So when I was misunderstood, when machines exploded, when I was running late, could I be gentle and know that it would be okay? Could I learn to not lose my cool or give way to dramatic emotions because I knew God would sort things out? Could I learn to not be hard on myself and trust that God would advocate for others because I knew Jesus was my validation? The short answer was, yes, I could, because God had brought me to that place.
My “final exam” for this lesson came during the end retreat for the GP, where we went out to a wilderness near Hinton, OK to get some alone time with God and reflect on our experiences. One morning our leaders sent us out with some devotional questions, telling us to pick a “desolate place” and work through them. I wanted to do a bit of a hike, so I chose a trail and set off. I soon realized that the trail I had picked was, just, so very gross. There were all sorts of bugs flying around and jumping out at me, and as I walked through the grass I could hear snakes slither away. There wasn’t any breeze, so I was hot and sticky, but I was determined to at least get to the top.
Eventually, I made it to the top. But to my dismay, the trail did not continue. The only way down was to go back down the horrible path I had just come through. I really didn’t want to do that. So I stubbornly waded through waist-high grass, worked my way through a tree-line of evergreens, and made it to the edge of the cliff. It wasn’t a sheer rock-face, but rather a steep incline of dirt with all manner of trees and shrubs growing practically horizontally from the wall. At the bottom was a pond, and on the other side of the pond was the main path which led back to our cabin. I started to see if I could negotiate climbing down the wall to walk around the pond to the path.
Then the ground broke beneath me.
I forgot that it had rained the night before, so the dirt was soft. At first I slid, then I tumbled. I stopped about two-thirds of the way down the cliff, thankfully without hitting any trees or continuing into the pond. I was covered in dirt, my body was shaking, and I was in complete shock. I took in my surroundings and realized I had three options: climb back up the cliff, go around the parameter of the pond, or swim across the pond. It didn’t seem wise to climb up something that had just disintegrated, and I really didn’t want to try and swim. The shortest route along the pond turned into a sheer rock-face, so I set off in the other direction.
The brush was dense and full of thorn vines which scratched up my arms and caught on my clothes. It was also full of spiders. Eventually, I just took off my backpack and held it in front of my face to clear the way. I didn’t have any cell reception, but I did have a bottle of Gatorade. There was no flat surface for my feet, and the ground was still wet, meaning my feet kept slipping. I kept falling down.
After slipping several times, I just sat down. I felt stress begin to take hold.
Then I remembered what I had read in Till We Have Faces just a few weeks before.
The Fox knows he’s about to be sent to a labor camp for crossing the King, and he tells his beloved pupil that he has poison to kill himself. At her protests, he reminds her that death is nothing to be afraid of. But she proves otherwise, noting that his body is trembling with fear.
“That’s my disgrace,” he says, “The body is shaking. I needn’t let it shake the god within me.”
Throughout the book, the Fox tends to make theologically rich statements without realizing just how true they are. My body was shaking, but I had been given a spirit not of fear, but of power, and love, and a sound mind. So I sat there and considered.
It will be okay. If I don’t show up, eventually, they will come looking for me. I can just keep making slow progress. And if I can’t, I’ll just sit and wait. It will be okay.
I stood back up, and I continued on my way. I slipped several more times before realizing that the pond was much bigger than I had thought, and it would be impossible to make it all the way around. So I turned my eyes upward, looking toward the top of the cliff. This portion was less steep than where I began, but the trees were still growing horizontally. By the grace of God, I could kind of use the trees as a ladder and resting places on my way up. I made it to the top but was dismayed to see that I was surrounded by dense evergreens. So I crawled underneath them until I found a clearing. After getting my bearings, I resolutely walked back to that gross path, hardly caring about the bugs and snakes anymore.
I ran into one of my pastors on the way back to the cabin, who was understandably astonished and concerned about me. I agreed to sit and wait for him to finish his prayer time so he could make sure I got back alright. There was a small area in the trees with a bench and a stone display, so I sat there and enjoyed the breeze.
The stone said this:
“And now, just as you trusted Christ to save you, trust him, too, for each day’s problems. Live in vital union with him. Let your roots grow down into him and draw up nourishment from him. See that you go on growing in the Lord, and become strong and vigorous in the truth you were taught. Let your lives overflow with joy and thanksgiving for all he has done. Col. 2:6-7 LB”
GP 2019, I hope you find these verses to be true this year. Have a great summer!