I was fifteen.
My church in East Texas sent me to a “Leadership Training” camp for Baptist students. Although, in retrospect, it was nothing more than a Christian youth camp with bells and whistles, I still consider it an important week in my life, because I heard God there.
Before the nightly worship service, with the famous speaker and energetic music, we played crazy games. The games involved shaving cream, water balloons, paint, mud, and all things dirty. At the end of the games, though, before we headed back to our dorms to get ready for evening worship, we all cleaned up the playing fields, everyone picking up trash along the way. We weren’t told this, but we were being watched. At the end of the week awards were given for each “family group,” and the most celebrated award was that of “Unsung Hero.” The recipient of that award was usually a quiet person who often lingered in the background to talk with and encourage one of the more timid people in the group. He or she usually didn’t draw much attention to themselves, and often were those staying behind to pick up trash, long after everyone else had gone.
When I turned 16 I began six years of service at another summer youth camp. The “real kind” of camp, out in the woods. I wasn’t a camp counselor, like the kind you see in all the classic summer camp movies. I was on “support staff,” which meant I served food, worked in the “slop room” cleaning dirty dishes, cut trails through the woods and even helped repair backed up sewer lines. It was hard, thankless work. But I had fun, made lifelong friends, and helped kids, teenagers and adults have a meaningful experience with God and with each other. I look back on those years as some of the greatest of my life.
When I graduated from college I moved to Dallas to work for a year in the office of a United States Senator. But the greatest part of that year for me wasn’t having a front row seat to world history that included the impeachment of a President. On the weekends I drove to Arlington to volunteer at a mission that ministered to the residents of a low-income apartment complex. I spent my Sundays singing songs and telling Bible stories to a small handful of children with dirty clothes and parents sleeping off hangovers and comedowns in their apartments. I felt like I was doing the greatest, most important work in the world.
At 25 I moved to Waco and found a group of people at UBC who were doing faith differently. There was energy in the place, an openness to questioning and doubt that I had never experienced before, and people actively seeking each other out for relationships and community. Within a couple of weeks I discovered they needed people to volunteer to clean the church on a weekly basis, since we couldn’t afford a janitor. As I scrubbed toilets and mopped floors, I marveled at the fact that I got to do something to serve a community that I loved so much.
At 38 I sat in a room of people I cared deeply about, cutting them off, spewing vitriol, questioning their motives, all because I wanted to be on the same level as everyone else.
I had lost my way.