I don’t recall the exact temperature as I pulled in to the parking lot of the summer camp, but I guess that detail is irrelevant. Like any midwestern summer, it was very hot, and it was very humid.
Did I mention it was hot?
A good friend of mine, Michael, was the official Staff Chaplain for that entire summer. He had asked me to attend a week of Middle School camp as the Guest Chaplain, hanging with the middle schoolers, participating in the activities, and providing a teaching or two throughout the week. (Unbeknownst to me, I was also going to meet my future wife at this camp as she oversaw the climbing wall and ropes course.)
During that previous school year, Michael was one of my volunteer leaders for our church’s youth group. I was completing my denominational internship at a church in the south suburbs of Chicago, and one of my main responsibilities was to lead the Middle School group. Michael, a young teacher, and his fiancé were two of my volunteer leaders, and they established meaningful and fun connections with the youth. Their love for our youth was inspiring. We would hold many a conversation about the importance of relational ministry and meeting the youth where they were at by being present in their world and not expecting them to enter into ours.
Leading up to this week of camp, Michael asked me if I wanted to be in cabin with a bunch of Middle School students or sleep in the Leader’s center. Due to my convictions and our previous conversations, I was unequivocally committed to staying in the cabin with students. At camp, this is the place where relationships are cultivated. It’s one of the best ways to meet the youth in their world and establish deep connections.
But then I arrived. It was hot. It was humid. And upon my arrival, I was informed that the youth cabins didn’t have air conditioning.
The Leader’s center did.
Do you ever have memories that make you cringe when you look back? And no matter how many times you play them back, the embarrassment and shame remain unmitigated?
You guessed it. I chose air conditioning and watched all of my strongly argued convictions and ministry philosophies burn into thin air. Just like that, within seconds.
Because cooler air was better.
Because comfort was better.
And though I was still able to establish some bonds with the students, those connections were created from a distance.
For my new youth director job, I have been meeting with other non-profit leaders around Central Oregon who provide services to youth. I created a series of questions to help facilitate our discussion. My final question is, “What do you wish Central Oregonians knew more about the teenagers in this area?” One leader’s response has gripped me ever since we had coffee. This is not verbatim but is the gist of what she said: “In order to serve them, you have to be willing to get dirty.”
In other words, leave the air conditioning.
Amidst the busyness and sentimentality of the Christmas season, I think there’s (at least) one thing we’ve lost about the original story. Study any Nativity setup, and it’s a sterile scene, or worse, cute. Mary and Joseph sitting there in untarnished clothes in the most well-kept barn, glowing while surrounded by the most tame of animals. It’s clean. It’s neat. It smells nice.
Except it was the antithesis of all those things. Dirty. Smelly. Screams of child-bearing. Society-shunned visitors who reeked.
And no air conditioning.
And in the midst of this Christmas story is a newborn baby that reminds us of an unconventional truth:
God chose to get dirty.