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


Each year about this time, the Mountain T.O.P. ministry holds a celebration at its headquarters and base camp, Cumberland Pines, between Altamont and Coalmont in Grundy County.

The event serves several purposes. About three-quarters of those in attendance are twenty-somethings who’ve been part of the Mountain T.O.P. summer staff in the past few years. Many of the individual camp staffs become quite close, and this is a great chance for them to reconnect. I love hearing the little squeals every few minutes from the women as some new person enters the room, to big hugs and laughter.

InstagramCapture_1d781efc-6c93-4e1c-9092-f28ce24f0de3Old fogeys are allowed to attend as well: current and former board members, Adults In Ministry campers and other friends of the ministry. I’m a former board member, an AIM camper and (I hope) a friend of the ministry. It’s a reunion for us as well, and tonight I got to see good friends like Jan Schilling, Sonja Goold, Ray Jones, Bob Willems, Reed and Deeda Bradford, and more. (I even got to see Sandy Hayostek, who I actually know through a LEAMIS trip – I don’t believe I’ve ever been at a Mountain T.O.P. event with her before.)

Finally, the event serves as the introduction of Mountain T.O.P.’s theme for the year. Each year, the ministry chooses a theme scripture and accompanying slogan, which is made into a logo. The logo appears on T-shirts, banners and preparation materials, and it’s also used as a theme for various worship services and devotions at camp events.

10903823_10203343271808331_3047647520528749390_oThis year’s theme is “Overwhelmed.” (I stole this photo from Sonja’s Facebook feed; don’t think she’ll mind.) The theme scripture is Psalm 42, and the inspiration was a song by Big Daddy Weave. (I wasn’t familiar either.)

As Mountain T.O.P.’s executive director, Rev. Ed Simmons, pointed out, the Psalm itself sounds more like lament than praise. But if you look closely, you realize it’s also about allowing the love of God to overwhelm us when we feel overwhelmed by trouble.

Of course, this year the theme logo will also have to share some of the spotlight with another logo – one we haven’t gotten to see yet. Ed said preparations are still being made for a special logo to celebrate Mountain T.O.P.’s 40th anniversary this year.

Tonight, though, was all about the theme reveal.

Dinner was poppy seed chicken – a Mountain T.O.P. staple for pretty much all of the ministry’s 40-year history, well before I got involved in 1993.

The e-mail invitation had suggested that we wear vintage Mountain T.O.P. T-shirts, although not everyone noticed it. I wore my all-time favorite Mountain T.O.P. shirt. I bought it during my very first AIM camp in 1993, although I think the shirt was actually from a year or two before that.

All in all, a very nice evening, and well worth the drive to and from Altamont.

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.

On the mountain

When the Rev. Amanda Diamond first e-mailed me about the possibility of me lay speaking at Morton Memorial United Methodist in Monteagle, I was thrilled – I have a number of friends at that church, and many memories of attending LEAMIS board meetings and team training events there. It’s a beautiful stone church, I think one of my favorite church sanctuaries.

But the reason Rev. Diamond needed a lay speaker was because of a trip she and others from the church were taking to the Holy Land – a trip that would include my long-time Mountain T.O.P. and LEAMIS friends Kylene McDonald and Bob Willems, among others, as well as Wayne Bradshaw, a new acquaintance with whom I worked earlier this summer on the “Fan the Flame” district laity event. So they wouldn’t be around for me to see.

Several other good friends who didn’t make the Holy Land trip were kept away this morning by family and health issues. Gail Castle was under the weather, while Reed and Deeda Bradford have been giving care to their son Tom through a serious illness.

As much as I would have liked to have seen all my friends, I can’t complain. The congregation at Morton made me feel right at home, and I was well-received. Peggy Partin, who led the parts of the service that I didn’t read, and her husband Richard did not remember me, but I remembered them from previous visits to Monteagle – I know they attended, and may even have hosted, a reception for Rev. Paul Mbithi that I attended.

I was shocked and dismayed, during the prayer concerns, to hear about Bobbie Joy’s cancer diagnosis. Bill and Bobbie attended Morton when they lived in Tennessee, before moving back to Ohio, and the folks at Morton still consider them family.

I’ll put my sermon from this morning up as a separate post in just a bit.

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.