People like US couldn’t help what we were. What we did flowed naturally from the characters we had been building in secret. And, of course, people like THEM didn’t know what they were talking about. What they said was unfair, totally inaccurate, and embraced only the tiniest little granule of truth. As so often is the case, that minuscule morsel was all that was necessary.
Looking back, I’m sometimes surprised at how easy it has been to leave certain behaviors behind. The old accusation has long since faded, and I sometimes marvel at how we ever managed such a feat.
Part of the fault could be pinned on youthful exuberance. Another blamed on our training. And maybe a small measure could be attributed to the weather and the landscape, whose not-so-subtle influences here truly cannot be overlooked. Honestly, “those people” just didn’t know what they were talking about. Really. At all.
Anyway, because we were a church group, we couldn’t help believing that, whatever else happened, God would naturally be on our side. He just wouldn’t be able to help Himself.
But we would never be the same afterwards. Looking into my friends’ eyes weeks later, I knew they were still thinking about it. If anyone from our group has finally finished mentioning this to themselves or a few trustworthy close friends after all these decades later, I’d be more than a little surprised.
Had our accusers known what kind of group they were dealing with, might their response have been different than the one they so eagerly served up? At this point, no one knows for sure. But I sometimes cannot help wondering what their reaction might have been had they known the truth. Perhaps, it was that very not knowing that actually saved us from something much worse later on.
It had been such a long week. More like a long spring, and an even longer summer, topped off by several labor-intense days of last-minute preparations, followed by about ten long, sleep-deprived days. Such was the nature of Mission Vacation Bible School. Our group of high school and college students, along with a handful of adult chaperones, had started preparing before school ended, participated in a “trial run” as teaching assistants under seasoned teachers in a Vacation Bible School at our home church, then we were finally launched, packing light and driving for a couple of days until we reached the small church we had hoped to encourage by putting on a “free” Vacation Bible School, for which all our target church needed to provide would be a building and food and lodgings for our group. No small task, all told. Still, since the recipients wouldn’t have to do any of the actual teaching and “production” work, they seemed more than happy to have us.
The Vacation Bible School was heavily advertised and well-attended. As our VBS schedule ran Monday through Friday mornings, we rose early, being careful to make our beds and straighten the rooms so generously provided for us by our host families, then hurried to breakfast, before converging at the church building, welcoming hoards of eager children, and starting our lessons and various other activities.
After the last (or, on some of the unexpectedly long days, most of the last) children had been claimed and taken home by their parents, our group trudged thankfully down to the church basement for a delicious lunch before we again busied ourselves in the early afternoons reviewing the next day’s lesson plans and making any necessary last-minute adjustments to our classrooms, then finding ourselves bustled off to one activity or another with our host families, or the church as a whole.
Decades later, much of those beautiful days has contracted into a peaceful, happy blur, punctuated by the occasional nap on church pews, hikes to the lake, and church-wide barbecues. Any spare time was usually shared with our host families, who were always delighted when we offered to help with kitchen clean-up after mealtimes. Smiles, laughter, favorite Bible verses, and secret dreams were shared and prayed over during that amazing week of service that somehow seemed less like work and more like an adventure by virtue of having been moved away from the familiar.
But even teenagers and twenty-somethings in good condition have their limits, and as the week wound down relentlessly to its predictably nostalgic end, we found ourselves collapsing into the unfriendly arms of exhaustion. I can only imagine how the adults in our group were faring by this time, but their enthusiasm and smiles kept going strong, fatigue notwithstanding.
Carefully repacking and inventorying our supplies, our leaders judiciously donated what everyone in our group hoped and prayed would enrich the church we had enjoyed for the past week, and after tearful hugs, prayers, and promises to write soon, we loaded up our bus and were soon on the road to one last adventure: the touring of a couple of large attractions, including a national park that I had been dreaming of visiting all my life.
Sleeping as the miles rolled by, and checking our film supplies at the scheduled rest stops, my friends and I oohed and aahed over breath-taking views, wildlife, and geysers, then stopped to devour over-priced brownies before taking a brisk hike. Perhaps it would not be an exaggeration to say that before suppertime rolled around, we were all starting to visibly sag.
But we had a solution that never failed to revive us, the same tactic we had fallen back on at the end of every long day at church. Forming a circle close to the picnic tables where we would eat later, we soon forgot ourselves, forgot our fatigue, and left every stress behind as we raised our voices heavenward in acapella four-, five-, and sometimes six-part harmonies and praised the King of the Universe with thankful hearts.
Singing God’s praises at the tops of my lungs, I could see that more than one of my friends was thinking the same thing I was: in heaven, we would someday be able to praise God like this forever without interruption. And somehow, the music there, in the land unstained by sin and perpetual failure, would be even more beautiful and compelling than our best dreams here. Secretly, I wished we could go ahead and beam ourselves up to heaven and get this party started already. But to my sorrow, like all good things, this beautiful time of worship eventually came to an end.
Dazed but hungry, we started setting out food for supper, soaking up the lovely view, and dreaming of future worship times. Enjoying good food and conversations, we were surprised to see Terry, our youth minister, come lurching toward the tables, his eyebrows, cheeks, and other facial features dancing in some sort of new, utterly foreign pattern. Though we knew it was unspeakably rude, we couldn’t help staring.
Something important had happened, and if we waited long enough, Terry would surely tell us. But he seemed to feel no hurry to share. Before he even began, our leader knew that no matter how he managed to phrase his next words, every single person in our group would take them exactly the wrong way. And he wouldn’t blame anyone for the strong opinions that would naturally arise. So, he hesitated, waiting until all eyes were on him, knowing that his words would have maximum impact if he could say them only once and be done with it.
Having already run through his repertoire of practical jokes during the course of the week, Terry was clean out of jokes he could surprise us with. These words he was speaking had to be the truth. One look at Terry’s strangely bemused face assured us this was no joke. He was both telling us the truth, and telling us what others had assumed to be the truth.
After he had made quick eye-contact with each and every one of us, our youth minister finally divulged the words that as the years went by would be constantly pondered and occasionally shared: “Hey, guys! I, um, I just got back from conferring with one of the game wardens who was telling me about a complaint that someone lodged against our group. Not to worry. We’re not in trouble. And we’re not going to be in trouble because I assured him it wouldn’t happen again.” As he paused temporarily, we racked our brains for any clue that might shed some light on whatever unpardonable sin we had unknowingly committed. None came, and lowering his voice, our fearless leader continued, “Someone said we were playing our radio too loud.”
I’m sure that our complainant never meant those words to be the supreme compliment we immediately framed them as. The radio in the bus worked so poorly that we hardly bothered with it, and under the best of circumstances, we could count on only a low, scratchy sound. Sharing secret smiles, we wolfed down the rest of our suppers, then packed up the leftovers before piling back into the bus and rolling on down the road.
September 13, 2018