I love teenagers. They think fast. They talk fast. They move fast. They have wild imaginations. They don’t think in terms of limitations, only possibilities. They can spot a phony a mile away. I love hanging around them and talking to them. One of the first youth retreats I ever went to was Synod Youth Workshop and I’ve been going to it long enough now that some of the kids I knew as youth are now going as leaders. It has its own unique flavor that makes it hard to describe and is very much one of those “you just have to have been there to understand” kind of experiences. But for a lot of people, adults included, it’s the turning point in their faith journey. It’s a week of stark honesty and total acceptance.
I usually come home with music and reading recommendations. One of the books I’ve already read and you should, too: “Pastrix” by Nadia Bolz-Weber.
The only remarkable thing that happened this year was that I was sick. It didn’t show itself for the destruction it could do until it was too late. Synod is high energy and deeply spiritual in the hands of the right leader, which is usually me. But this year I was off my mark and I didn’t figure it out until it was too late. I look back on the week and can point to specific times I dropped the ball or could have steered the group into a different direction that would have changed the whole week. I had the most perfect group of kids in terms of spiritual potential that I’ve ever had and we could have gone so far with deep discussions but we didn’t. And I could kick myself that it didn’t happen. And you don’t get a Do Over.
I was probably sicker than I realized at the time. I had some kind of weird sore throat thing going on. It was like nothing I’d ever had before. I stopped at a Doc in the Box on the road between Gilmont and Tulsa. I left with a prescription. And I ended up in Tulsa with no way to measure taking one teaspoon four times a day in the midst of a hectic week. Consequently, I took random swings from the bottle whenever I got the chance which I can pretty much guarantee was neither a teaspoon nor four times a day.
The speaker was amazing. Neema Cyrus-Franklin is a rising star in the Presbyterian Church. Write that name down. You will be hearing more from her. Our service project was interesting. But interesting in that Presbyterian teenagers are astute enough in their theology that they don’t appreciate being talked down to by Methodist chaplain who was trying to kill time waiting for a delivery truck. The service projects are probably the best part of the week. It always blows my whistle to see 26 small groups of 12 people unleashed on a town the size of Tulsa to do service for a whole day—sometimes more service than is asked of them, sometimes from deeper within themselves than they ever imagined they could reach. Sometimes at lunch at Panda Express.
This retreat has become more than just the retreat itself. I got to take our annual survivor’s photo with Shalise Jordan. In 2003 the theme for Synod was “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” and I decided I would learn the names of the people who worked in the cafeteria at the school. Shalise was about the only person whose name I really learned mostly because she was always in the same place every day and, let’s be honest here, the person who grants me access to food always gets my attention. Plus, sometimes the lines stops for a while and that gives us a chance to talk. So, it was easy to remember Shalise.
Then three or four years ago I knew something was wrong when I saw her. She told me she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was having chemotherapy. Her hair was beginning to fall out. I’m not sure which was bothering her more the hair loss or the cancer. I knew immediately she needed to meet Sharla Fowler so I went and found Sharla in the salad line and introduced them.
Sharla had breast cancer the year before I did. We had almost the same kind with the same treatment. Where I chose to mostly pretend nothing had ever happened and went through the lumpectomy and radiation quietly, Sharla became the poster chick for cancer. Literally. She was on a roadside billboard for the Texas Oncology Centers because she thought so highly of them and kept telling people how great they are. She and her family were in a television ad. But it wasn’t just publicity. Sharla kept better track of my cancer than I did. She sent me an email on my one-year anniversary of finishing radiation and caught me by surprise.
So Sharla and Shalise and I formed our own little cancer chicks support group right there on the spot. We keep track of each other on facebook. Shalise says, “That way I know you’re alright.”
This is last year's photo--
This is last year's photo--
Every year we take our photo in the same spot. We never plan on the "Our Family" bulletin board in the background but I can't think of a better one.
God gives you ministry everywhere. Even in the places you don’t think. I went to Tulsa to minister to youth and found it in the dining hall. Another group of kids found it a Panda Express. It’s everywhere.