the rest of the year

It’s one of the curses of my life in recent years that three of the things I look forward to the most each year – the Nashville Symphony concert in Shelbyville, for which I’m co-chair of the organizing committee; the American Cancer Society Relay For Life in Bedford County, for which I’m publicity and online chair (and was just named volunteer of the year); and my annual week at Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry all fall within about a six or seven week period in May and June. This sets me up for a huge letdown once they’re all over with. I want it to be Relay night again. I want to be pulling into Cumberland Pines again (especially since there were a few aspects of this year’s AIM experience where I’d like a do-over). But now I have 11 months until Relay next year (and I’m not even sure if we’ll have a symphony concert next year).

I have no time to mope, however. Ever since April 8, I’d been on loan to the Times-Gazette’s sister paper in Lewisburg. I was still writing a few things for the Times-Gazette – county government stories, plus a few features – but my day-to-day work was at the Marshall County Tribune.

I found out while I was at Mountain T.O.P. that my sojourn is over and I will show up for work on Monday at the Times-Gazette. I will hit the ground running; we have some hot county budget issues, and we’ll soon start (if they haven’t already) working on stories for our annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration supplement.

I also plan to try out for a play next month. Martin Jones is a pressman at the T-G with whom I’ve appeared in several productions. (I played his father in “Come Blow Your Horn”; he played my father in “Daddy’s Dyin’ … Who’s Got The Will?” We’ve also appeared together in other things.) He’ll be directing a production of “Don’t Drink The Water,” with auditions next month and the actual production in September.

And I plan to continue work on the self-published book of sermons and devotionals that I keep talking about. I have been making some progress, but now that Relay and all that is behind me, I can get even more serious.

On a related note, I am already included in a new book of devotionals. In honor of its 40th anniversary, Mountain T.O.P. has published “Walk Down This Mountain,” a collection of devotions collected throughout the ministry’s history, broken down into sections by decade.

I knew they were talking about it and had even given them some of my self-publishing experience and pointed them towards CreateSpace, the firm I used for my Bad Self-Published Novel. I did not realize until I flipped through a copy last month that my “cast-iron skillet sermon,” which I adapted for use as a Holy Time Out several years back, was included. The Kindle edition of the book is now listed on Amazon, but the paperback still has a placeholder page. And I don’t have the direct link to the CreateSpace page. I will post all of that to social media once I get it.

So maybe I’ll be busy enough this summer to avoid the post-Relay, post-Mountain T.O.P. letdown.

Break out the taboo cards

When I first signed up for Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry (AIM) in 1993, it was because I thought it would be fun teaching creative writing to teenagers as part of the “Summer Plus” program. I had no teaching experience; my only experience was as a writer.

I didn’t actually get to teach the class that first year, but I’ve taught it many times since. Some have been more successful than others. Creative writing is the type of workshop where the teens have to want to be there. If they don’t – maybe they got their first choice of workshop in the morning but were arbitrarily assigned to creative writing in the afternoon – it seems an awful lot like school. I try hard not to make it seem like school, but I don’t have all of the tools in my toolkit that a professional educator would have.

Anyway, the past couple of years, for reasons I won’t go into, I haven’t been able to make plans in advance to go to AIM. In both 2013 and 2014, I got the chance to go at the last minute – which was great, but what it meant was that the lineup of Summer Plus workshops was already in place and they didn’t need to add another one. So I participated in Summer Plus solely as an assistant in someone else’s workshops. Last year, for example, I helped out in a cooking workshop taught by Jean Nulle and in a photography workshop taught by Bobby and Robert Matthews. That was fun – I enjoy helping in a workshop, especially in crafty sorts of workshops where it works out for the helpers to jump in and do the project alongside the teens.

But I still missed teaching my own workshop. And so, this year, when I was able to get my AIM application in well in advance, I looked forward to creative writing. I waited patiently to hear something. In the past, some of the preliminary arrangements for Summer Plus would sometimes be made by the year-round staff, and so you’d get a call a month or two before camp confirming what you wanted to teach and so on. But now, all of that is handled by the summer staff – who’ve only been on duty a few weeks and who’ve been busy this past week running the first AIM event of the summer. So I’ve been on pins and needles waiting to hear from somebody and confirm that I would, in fact, be teaching creative writing.

I got my courtesy call today, and everything is “go” for me to teach creative writing. I will only have one session (which is my preference, although I’d have done two sessions if they’d needed me to). The other half of the day I will be helping out with someone else’s workshop.

I generally start out by having the students (along with any helpers) pair up and interview each other and write a simple paragraph which they can use to introduce each other to the group. Then we talk about the importance of good description. At this point, I generally break out the party game “Taboo.” In this game, a player must describe a word or concept to his or her teammates – but can’t use the five most-obvious clues, which are taboo. For example, you might have to describe “Superman” without using “hero,” “Clark Kent,” “Lois Lane,” “fly” or “Krypton.” A member of the opposing team stands over your shoulder with a buzzer, ready to penalize you if you say one of the “taboo” words. There’s an egg timer, and you try to get your team to guess as many cards as possible before time runs out and the other team takes a turn.

We use the game to make a point about colorful description, but it’s also just fun to play. Later in the week, I’ll use it at the end of the session if we have time to kill or the natives are getting restless.

I’m on my second Taboo game, and I really need a new one – the buzzer is made of parts from the first game and the second game put together, and some of the cards have out-of-date cultural references that I suspect have been changed in the latest edition.

How far we go with storytelling depends on who’s in the class and what level they’re at. Some years, we’ve worked on a short and simple group story, short enough to be read aloud during our presentation for parents and family members at the end of the week.

One year, Diana Simmons Woodlock, the daughter of Mountain T.O.P. executive director Ed Simmons, was my helper in the class – a bit intimidating, since Diana really is a teacher. She told me at the end of the week that she’d been skeptical about the group story idea but was amazed at how far we’d gotten with it. That made me feel good.

I talk to the teens about the importance of journaling – as always with Summer Plus, we’ll have teens from a variety of home situations, good and bad, and some of them would no doubt benefit from an outlet. (One year, a girl actually told me that her counselor had encouraged her to journal.) I give them blank journals at the end of the week as a gift. Most of the journals I have were donated to me some years back, but in 2013 or 2014 – during a brief window when I thought I might still be teaching the class – I realized that most of the remaining journals were very girly in appearance. As it happens, most of my students over the years have been girls, but there have been boys, too, and so I rushed out that year and bought two or three gender-neutral looking journals just to be on the safe side.

I can’t wait to see how things go this year.

join me on the mountain

A few years ago, I started writing a post about Mountain T.O.P.’s Adults In Ministry (AIM) program and it turned into a series of posts. Since then, when I’ve encouraged people to go to AIM, I’ve just linked to those posts.

But that series – and I’m still proud of it – was kind of, well, wordy. Once you start me talking, or writing, about AIM, it’s sort of hard to get me to shut up.

So here, just for the sake of doing it, is a shorter version.

Mountain T.O.P. (Tennessee Outreach Project), a ministry which I served for a total of 12 (non-consecutive) years as a board member, celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2015. Mountain T.O.P. was founded by a United Methodist church, and because of that it has some administrative ties to the United Methodist Church, but it’s completely interdenominational in its program, and has drawn volunteers from a variety of different denominational background ever since the first camp in 1975. Mountain T.O.P. is best known for a program that takes church youth groups as volunteers, but I got involved through AIM. It’s a passion for me. I’ve been pretty much every year since 1993 except for a few years in the 2000s when the dates of my foreign mission trips conflicted with the program.

A short-term mission trip is different from the work you do in your local church and community. The two aren’t in competition with one another; each can enhance the other. Jesus told the disciples they would be his witnesses in “Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” It’s good to explore different cultures and different types of need. It’s also good to get away and live in Christian community in a way that differs from what we’re able to do in the workaday world.

AIM operates in Grundy County, on the Cumberland Plateau, which has both unique assets and challenges, including economic struggles that go back for generations.

AIM has both week-long events during the summer and weekend events during the fall, but I’m going to talk about the former because it’s the nearest and dearest to my heart, and because I think the level of community and friendship you find in the week-long event is a different thing from what you can find in a weekend.

There will be three week-long camps this summer. At each of the three camps, each individual visitor has a choice between two different forms of service. One of them is always home repair, and the other one has to do with helping children and youth from the remote mountain communities. Here, in a nutshell, are the programs:

Major Home Repair (all 3 weeks)

Teams of about six people go and do home repair work for a deserving Grundy County family. The projects run the gamut. This program is open to, and commonly includes, men and women of every skill level. Whether you’re a professional contractor or have never picked up a hammer, you will be welcome and needed. The teams are put together on Sunday of a camp week in such a way that each team contains a balance of gender, age and experience level. You may find yourself learning new skills of which you wouldn’t have thought yourself capable.

The home repair projects are ongoing – other volunteers have worked on them before your team, and still other volunteers will take up wherever you left off.

Summer Plus (June 21-27)

This is what first attracted me to AIM, and it’s the program I’ve done most often. Volunteers conduct enrichment workshops for teenagers from the mountain. You can volunteer to teach, and even suggest a subject, or you can just work in a support role. We pick up the teenagers each morning and drop them off each afternoon. Teens take one workshop before lunch and a different workshop after lunch. Past workshops have included cooking, tennis, creative writing, drama, photography, juggling, Pinterest-inspired crafts, self-defense, basic car care, and on and on. If you can teach a few basic skills over an 8-hour period ( ~2 hours a day Monday through Thursday, with a much briefer wrapup session and a presentation for the parents on Friday), it’s fair game for a Summer Plus workshop.

Kaleidoscope (June 7-13)

Similar in format to Summer Plus, but focused on the arts and meant to serve elementary-age special needs children. “Special needs” is broadly defined and can include anything from disabilities to ADHD to a crappy home situation. As with Summer Plus, we need both people willing to teach and people working to support the program. In Kaleidoscope, the kids take the same workshop every morning but they rotate through workshops in the afternoon, so if you were a teacher you would need to develop two different lesson plans – a four-day plan for your primary group in the mornings, and a single-day plan which you would give four different times, to four different groups of kids, in the afternoon.

My ideal summer is to get to go to AIM twice, so that I can do both Summer Plus and Kaleidoscope. I’ve done that several times in the past, although I won’t get to do it that way this year.

Quest (July 5-11)

This is the newest of the four programs, and the only one in which I’ve never participated. Like Summer Plus, this serves teens from the mountain – but it’s focused on adventure activities like rappelling, rafting and a ropes course. Adult volunteers work in a support role. Adults are free to participate alongside the kids but are also free to skip any individual activity that they don’t feel comfortable doing.

Camp community at AIM

AIM events are held at Cumberland Pines, Mountain T.O.P.’s base of operations between Altamont and Coalmont in Grundy County. Adults stay, two to a room, in Bradford Cabin (formerly known as Friends Cabin), which was specifically built for the adult ministry and has amenities like air conditioning.

The camp community has a morning devotion and breakfast before heading out their separate ways – home repair teams to their sites, and the volunteers for that week’s youth program to pick up kids and bring them back to camp.

In the evening, we come back together for dinner, and then have sharing (a time to talk about the day’s experiences) and a brief, colorful and participatory time of worship.

The sense of Christian community that forms through a week in camp has led to some special friendships which I’ve treasured and maintained for years.

To mark the ministry’s 40th anniversary, AIM is shooting for attendance of 40 for each of the three camp weeks. I would dearly love to be able to introduce some friends to this ministry, which has meant so much to me over the past 22 years. If you’re at all interested, please either contact me or go to http://mountain-top.org/adults-in-ministry-aim.

my happy place

Here’s a little thought experiment to try to warm myself up. Feel free to come along as I try to escape the polar vortex.

The temperature is not in single digits, because it’s not January. It’s July, and I’m at Camp Cumberland Pines, volunteering with Summer Plus. We’ve just ended a good, satisfying day of working with the teenagers. My creative writing workshop is going well in the afternoons, and I’m having fun helping out in another workshop — let’s say, cooking — in the mornings.

I’m a co-pilot on one of the transportation routes, but not today — one of my fellow volunteers who hasn’t been involved in transportation wanted to get out into the county and see where the teens come from, so she offered to swap with me this afternoon. I watch the last of the vehicles pull out of the front entrance to Cumberland Pines. I slip on my backpack and begin walking across the big field from the Wingo Pavilion to the dining hall, beyond which lies Friends Cabin.

The warm sun feels wonderful. I’m wearing shorts and a tie-dyed t-shirt, and I throw on my Mountain T.O.P. ball cap to shade my face. The home repair volunteers have to wear long pants at the work site – it’s an insurance thing – but I can, and do, wear shorts almost all week. I usually arrive in camp wearing long pants, and sometimes I’ll put on long pants on Friday for our Summer Plus celebration, which the teens’ parents come for. But the rest of the time, I’m in shorts. I’m a volunteer, and Summer Plus is a good day’s work, but it’s also a form of vacation.

I walk past Guido. Guido is a tree located near the dining hall, with benches arranged around it in a circle. I have no idea why it’s called Guido. At this point, nobody else may know either.

One or two other volunteers who didn’t have to do transportation are in the lobby of Friends Cabin. We exchange pleasantries about how the day went. I stop by my room in Friends Cabin, take off my shoes and socks and put on flip-flops. I sit out on the deck for a few moments. I look over at Three Crosses, an outdoor worship area nearby, and down at the AIM pavilion. I decide to go in and take a shower. Most of the other Summer Plus volunteers are women, and most are on their transportation routes, so I have the men’s shower room all to myself. Later, about 5 or so, the home repair teams will start rolling into camp, and all three shower stalls will be busy at once, with people waiting their turn. But for now, it’s just me, and a hot shower feels good.

After showering and putting on clean clothes, I wander over to the dining hall — to use the wi-fi and to set one of the tables (I’m co-hosting a table for dinner tonight). As I finish putting out napkins and silverware, I hear a couple of cars driving back into camp. It’s too early for the home repair folks to be back, so I know it’s probably my fellow Summer Plus volunteers, probably some who were dropping off teens relatively near the camp. I wander back over to Friends Cabin.

I pick up the deck of cards on the table in the lobby. “Are you going to play ‘Screw The Dealer’ tonight?” I ask someone.

“Oh, yes. I can’t do any worse than I did last night.”

I walk over to the fridge, put 75 cents in the cash box, and pull out a Diet Coke. Then I think about it for a second, put the Diet Coke back, put 50 more cents in the cash box, and get an IBC black cherry instead. I’ve earned it.

I look at my “mailbox,” a black cylinder marked with my name sitting on the mailbox table. Some people have hand-made mailboxes they’ve been bringing to camp for years; others didn’t bring a mailbox and have brown paper lunch sacks with their name scrawled on them in magic marker. There’s a note of thanks and encouragement in my mailbox from one of my fellow volunteers. I realize I’ve been delinquent in my own note-writing and I sit down at the table, where there are little squares of paper and pens strewn about.

After writing a few notes and depositing them in the appropriate mailboxes, I wander back out to the deck. Dinner will come up at 6 p.m., and then sharing. Sharing is a chance to talk about the day, and if I get the chance I’ll have a moving story about something one of my creative writing kids said during my workshop. Worship will follow a few minutes after sharing breaks up. It will be brief and creative. By 8:45 or so, we’ll all be free for the evening, and that card game is likely to crank up.

Right now, though, I’m just sitting on the Friends Cabin deck, enjoying the warm weather and waiting for my friends to get back from their transportation routes and home repair sites.

God is good.

Do you feel warmer now?  If you’d like to make this trip for real, you can find out more here.

Mark your calendars now

Mountain T.O.P. has announced the dates for Adults In Ministry weeks for summer 2014. They are:

June 15-21, Major Home Repair and Kaleidoscope

June 29-July 5, Major Home Repair and Summer Plus

July 13-19, Major Home Repair and Quest.

The summer AIM weekend (Major Home Repair only) will be July 24-27.

 

Need more information?

Here’s the official Mountain T.O.P. AIM page.

Here are links to a series of posts I wrote about AIM a couple of years ago.

Here’s a slideshow from the AIM week I attended in 2012. The 2013 slideshow isn’t up yet, but I’m told it will be soon.

I would really, really love to introduce some new people to AIM next summer.

Look up and see Jesus

This is the group morning devotion I led this morning on our last day of Mountain T.O.P Adults In Ministry. I normally wouldn’t post something like this, but I had a special request. (Hi, Jan Lloyd-Gohl!)

Camp Cumberland Pines, Cumberland Heights, TN
June 29, 2013

Matthew 17 (CEB)
17 Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. 2 He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.
3 Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” 6 Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.
7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

The Transfiguration, along with maybe the raising of Lazarus from the dead, is probably the most amazing thing witnessed by the disciples during Jesus’ earthly ministry prior to the crucifixion.

Peter, upon witnessing the presence of the two legendary figures, immediately went into public relations mode. Hey, he must have thought, this will show everyone! Once they see this, they’ll know that Jesus is the Messiah and have no choice but to appoint him as king and allow him to lead us in revolt against the Romans. Peter, overwhelmed by the experience, offers to put up tabernacles, or shrines, or shelters, depending on who you believe.
But God reminds Peter of what is really important: “This is my beloved son, Jesus. Listen to him.”
Many of you, like me, have been coming to this place, this program, for years. Others are first-timers. It’s a special experience, one we look forward to every year, one we’re constantly talking to our friends and neighbors about. And that’s a good thing. It’s a great thing. I didn’t think I was going to make it to the mountain this year, but God and the full-time staff made it possible for me to be here on short notice, and I was so excited about coming.
But now, we’ve gotten our fishhooks and we’ve loaded up our cars. In a little while, we’ll be headed home.

7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

The purpose of this week has been to fix up houses and to teach workshops. But beyond that, it’s been to love our home repair families and the teenagers with whom we’ve worked. And beyond that, it’s been to look up, and see no one except Jesus. We mustn’t ever become so obsessed with the Mountain T.O.P. experience that we forget to look at Jesus.
On Wednesday night, some of us stopped by and saw the inscription at the lookoff point at Beersheba Springs, where Mountain T.O.P. was born: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills.” That’s from Psalm 121. Here it is in the Common English Bible:
121I raise my eyes toward the mountains.
Where will my help come from?
2My help comes from the LORD,
the maker of heaven and earth.
3God won’t let your foot slip.
Your protector won’t fall asleep on the job.
4No! Israel’s protector
never sleeps or rests!
5The LORD is your protector;
the LORD is your shade right beside you.
6The sun won’t strike you during the day;
neither will the moon at night.
7The LORD will protect you from all evil;
God will protect your very life.o
8The LORD will protect you on your journeys—
whether going or coming—
from now until forever from now.

“…and they looked up, and saw no one except Jesus.” As wonderful as this experience has been, all that matters is for us to look up and see Jesus. When we’re looking at our slide show, when we’re sorting through our photos or giving a report to our Sunday School class, we’ll talk about our traditions and the friends we’ve made and the worship that made us cry and the fun times we’ve had. We’ll talk about dominoes, and the room that got TPed, appendicitis, and Stone Door, and the woman with the distinctive laugh, and poppy-seed chicken, and putting the “P” in MPT, and fishhooks. That’s a natural way to talk about an experience like this. But let’s never get so excited about putting up a tent for Elijah that we forget about Jesus.
Going forward, we have to continue to have the faith, and the works, that we had this week with Moses, and Elijah, and Michael, and Joey, and Janey, and Brooke, and Alli here on the mountain.
As you leave here, look up – and see no one but Jesus.

Is it Wednesday already?

It can’t be Wednesday already. The week is half gone!
Summer Plus is going well, and I’ve settled into both workshops — though with dramatically different roles and dynamics in each. We’ve got a great group of teens this year, and a great group of adult volunteers.
Tonight is our traditional free time night. Instead of eating in the dining hall, we’ll have a cookout, with some brief entertainment, and then there will be no sharing or worship tonight. It is free time, and you can do whatever you like — but 90 percent of the camp ends up going to Beersheba Springs to Phil and Terry Mayhew’s pottery shop, the Mountain Home gift shop, and to look off the overlook in front of the Methodist assembly. The Mayhews, who know we are coming, will stay open late (Terry often comes to the cookout to invite us) and Phil will sit on the front porch at his potter’s wheel and throw some pieces for us to watch, which is always fascinating.
Those of you who are Facebook friends, I hope I haven’t been overwhelming you with photos. I’m having a great week.

Tabula rasa

Normally when I go to Summer Plus, I teach creative writing during one of the two workshop sessions and then assist some other workshop leader in the other one.

I knew when I signed up for Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry at such a late date that the roster of workshops might already be set in stone. I put on my application that I could teach “creative writing, or as needed.”

Well, I got my touch-base call from the AIM staff this morning, and while they offered to let me teach creative writing if I really wanted to to they sort of gave the impression that things were OK as they were, and that was fine with me. So I’ll be doing Summer Plus, but I won’t be leading a workshop myself, only assisting in other people’s workshops for both the morning and afternoon sessions. (This is what I do when I go to Kaleidoscope instead of Summer Plus – I assist rather than lead.) I don’t know what sessions I’ll be helping with, and the last few years the assignment of helpers has been more of an informal process, worked out during our planning sessions on Sunday night of camp week rather than in advance.

At the end of creative writing, I usually give the teens a blank journal. I’ve had a huge stash of journals, many of which were donated to me for this purpose by a friend a number of years back. I still had more than enough for one or two workshops, but almost all of the ones that remained had a cover design which my students would consider feminine.
WP_000447

I tend to have more girls than boys in the workshop, but even so I needed to be prepared. It’s worth noting that I often let the teens pick out a journal themselves, and many of the girls in the past have preferred a plain blue journal bound like a hardback book over that supposedly girly-looking model, which was spiral-bound. That’s one reason I had so many of the spiral-bound notebooks left.

I was at Walmart the other day and ended up buying three blank journals in more gender-neutral designs. It turns out I jumped the gun by doing that, since I won’t be teaching the workshop, but I’ll just save them for another year. (I may use one of them myself on the Sierra Leone trip.) At least it will be easier to pack, since I won’t have to bring my big box of workshop stuff.

There will be about 25 adults in camp — 9 or 10 in Summer Plus and the rest in Major Home Repair. The full-time staff stops updating the “who’s coming to camp” lists on the web site once training and camp season start — they’ve got a heck of a lot of other things to do that take precedence — and there were only about 15 people listed on the web site the last time that page was updated. Jan Schilling tells me that “Smitty” Smith is one of the additions, and I’m curious to know who else might be coming.

Helen Vickers tells me on FB that her husband Rick McNeely, a former Mountain T.O.P. full-time staffer who played the key role in creating Kaleidoscope, will be at Cumberland Pines next week as well — not in AIM but as an adult driver in the Youth Summer Missions (YSM) camp that will be taking place at the same time. The staff is usually pretty good about keeping YSM and AIM from crossing paths, but hopefully I’ll get the chance to see and speak to Rick at some point.

I still remember one year when Mountain T.O.P. used to have an annual fund-raising golf tournament and I was a board member. They had one of those contests where, if you hit a hole in one on a designated hole, you win a car. The insurance company which made such contests possible required that there be two witnesses at the designated hole, not players, who could attest to a hole in one should it take place. Rick and I wound up with that job somehow — we sat at the second hole and watched every single tee shot so that we could witness any holes in one. (Sadly, it didn’t happen.)