I can think of few better times and places for a youth leadership retreat than Door County in August. The sun and water filled with the green of the surrounding trees over against the blue sky streaked with white cloud calm the soul. It was a pleasure to share a few days with three college-age adults and eight kids of middle and high school age.
Many think that whoever invented middle school children was out of his mind, but I will be honest and say that I love this age group. They easily scale the heights of euphoria only to plumb the depths of emotional collapse in a span of a few hours.
The road trip was eventful as so often is the case. The containers I put on the luggage carrier of the van were filled with an unquenchable desire to fly away. The bungee cords snapped under the pressure at 70 miles an hour. It is humbling to run back and pick up one's possessions scattered along the edge of the road.
Only one puker among the twelve of us! I won't mention which boy it was. He had the good sense to throw up during a pit stop, not in the car.
Isn't GPS wonderful? We made plans to meet at Peninsula State Park, a piece of paradise for sure. My GPS took us to the park office. The other vehicle's GPS took it to the middle of the forest. "You have arrived." Indeed.
The gift of hospitality runs deep among the faithful, and we were given a warm welcome at Immanuel Lutheran Church (LCMC) in Baileys Harbor where we were guests. The boys made breakfast every morning of the retreat. The hardest part was getting them out of bed. At evening prayer, I would enjoin silence for a brief minute. "Awesome," whispered one of the girls. The sound of silence is sweet.
The scripture one evening was about the simplicity at the heart of Jesus' teaching: love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.
I reminded the kids about who God is, the ultimate combination of goodness, truth, and beauty, which we see with particular clarity in Jesus on the cross. Love that combination, love the unity of those three, love the Lord Jesus, and you will love whomever you meet, and you will be able to do whatever you want, and even if you fail, you will have done the right thing.
I returned from Door County to Oshkosh and immediately headed south that Friday afternoon for rest and relaxation with my family in Waukesha. The splendid thing about home is that when I walk in the door and see all the familiar sights and smell all the familiar smells (Paola my wife is always cooking something), I know I am home. I feel the same way when I enter the sanctuary at Zion. I know I am home.
God’s plans are not our plans. At 8 pm I received a call from Omaha Nebraska, from a mother with ten children in her care. “Are you coming?” she said. The call was unexpected because, as much as I knew that this lovely family needed to move from the huge housing project in Omaha where they were living to the safety of Oshkosh, I had given up on that prospect. I had prayed long and hard that they would come, but my prayers were not answered. I had stopped praying for them to come. That is exactly when God answered my prayer. That was humbling.
“I am coming,” I said. “Have you talked to Alour and Mayom?” (who would take them in here in Oshkosh if they came). “Yes, I have,” she said.
All right, I replied. Be ready to leave Omaha in the morning at 10 am. It was back to Oshkosh from Waukesha, and then on to Omaha, leaving Oshkosh at 1 am on Saturday, driving straight through, in order to pick up carfuls of kids and luggage. I made it back with the first batch at 11 pm that evening. Another vehicle arrived in Oshkosh at 2 am on Sunday, and the last, which blew a tire near Des Moines, at 6:30 pm on Sunday.
I could tell story after story about those first 36 hours, and about everything that has happened since as Zion and Oshkosh have welcomed this family with open arms.
Here is a story that illustrates the difference between Law and Gospel. Samuel and John were soccer stars back in Omaha, and Elizabeth, wants to be on the high school dance team. I knew that they might have a bad first year in Oshkosh if soccer and dance were not part of their daily routine. So on the Monday morning following their arrival, I introduced Sam and John to the head soccer coach at North High School. He immediately became excited at the sight of these athletes. By Tuesday evening, I had introduced Elizabeth to a member of the dance team.
One problem: They could not start practicing soccer or dance without a physical in Oshkosh and school-approved paperwork signed by a physician. It did not matter that two of them had just had a physical in Omaha and had the paperwork to prove it. That is the Law.
Nonetheless I went to North’s athletic director, explained the situation, and he granted a temporary waiver for Sam and Elizabeth based on the paperwork from a physician they brought with them from Omaha. He didn’t have to do that. That he did falls into the category of Gospel.
A lot of people think they are entitled to EVERYTHING. According to the Gospel, the ONLY thing we are entitled to is toil, trouble, and death.
Yet according to that same Gospel, FREELY we receive blessing upon blessing, the promise of salvation included. FREELY we are invited to bless others by our word and deed.
Vacation Bible School at Zion this year over the course of four evenings saw the participation of a total of over 30 elementary school children and younger, about two dozen middle school and high school kids, and about two dozen adults college age and older. It was an enormous team effort, with each evening posing unique challenges.
Some of my best friends are school principals. A day in the life of a principal is a day of crisis management. On a small scale, the same is true of Vacation Bible School. As for the kids, if we ran VBS every evening over the summer, they might never tire of it. They would continue to invite their friends, and have moments of extreme happiness and moments of deep emotional distress. They really are built to eat and learn and play and worship. Aren’t we all?
Pastor John Hobbins
Youth and Family Ministries
400 N Sawyer St, Oshkosh, WI 54902