Hit the road

A couple of weeks ago, I had a lengthy post about Mountain T.O.P.’s Adults In Ministry program and why you – yes, you – should join me there next summer. If you missed it, I’d consider it a personal favor for you to read it now. I’ll wait here until you get back.

Anyway, I was walking at the rec center today, thinking about that post, and realized there was one issue I meant to cover and didn’t cover in great detail, although I sort of got got close to it a couple of times. It’s a pretty big issue, one I’ve encountered whenever I talk about Mountain T.O.P. or whenever I talk about my foreign mission trips. It’s more relevant than ever right now, because of the tough economy.

People from all over the eastern U.S. come to Mountain T.O.P. camps, but sometimes when I talk to my own friends and neighbors here in Tennessee about it, I get a response – sometimes implied, sometimes stated outright – that it makes no sense to go to Grundy County (or Kenya!) to be in ministry when there are needs right here in our home county.

It’s exactly right that we have needs, serious needs, right here at home. We see that more clearly at the holidays than at any other time of the year, although the needs themselves are year-round.

But the first point I want to make is that it’s not an either-or situation.  Listen to the very last words Jesus spoke to his disciples before his ascension:

Acts 1:8 (NIV) “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jesus calls the disciples to be in ministry in their home city, in their region, and beyond.

It needs to be said, immediately, that what you do on a mission trip, domestic or foreign, is not a substitute for, or an alternative to, being in ministry in your home community the other 50 or 51 weeks out of the year. And, in fact, many of the people I know who are most passionate about short-term missions are also heavily-involved in various ministries, non-profits or community outreach in their hometowns. One of my good friends from both Mountain T.O.P. and LEAMIS trips, Jan Schilling, is a great example of this. One week, she’s in Kenya making charcoal; the next week, she’s back home in Smyrna working for Habitat For Humanity or an animal shelter or doing some other type of volunteer work.

The “Mountain T.O.P. song,” which the ministry has adopted as its theme song, makes allusions to this; we can’t live on a mountain top, but we can take our mountain top experiences home with us and share them “in the valley below.”

It’s also important to note that there are different types of needs in different places. I would never make light of poverty here at home, but then again there’s no comparison between being poor in Bedford County and being poor in the Kibera slums outside Nairobi. The poorest person in Bedford County has access to clean water, free school for the kids, emergency room care, and various types of public assistance. People in Kibera live in tiny huts, crammed together like sardines, with filthy water running between them, in constant danger of being attacked or robbed.

Grundy County is much closer to Bedford County than to the Kibera slums, but even in that case the needs are different. Poverty in Grundy County goes back decades, and there are conditions which are short-term hardships for us but a way of life for them. There are cultural differences, geographic differences and vicious cycles that apply in the mountains that make it different from life here at home.

In some ways, it’s not a matter of one person being needier than another. You’d go crazy if you tried to rank or prioritize the needs of every cultural subgroup in Tennessee, much less Planet Earth. But when we recognize that there are different types and levels of need, we recognize the value in exposing ourselves to different cultures and different types of ministry.

Short-term mission work takes nothing away from local ministry. But I’m going to go further than that: I think short-term mission work enhances local ministry.

The primary purpose of a short-term mission trip is the ministry being conducted, the people being served. But an important secondary benefit of a short-term mission trip is that it often serves as a time of spiritual development and refreshment for the volunteers themselves. I know it has served that purpose in my life; I sometimes feel selfish for going on such trips, because it seems as if I get more out of them than I put into them. There is something about the process of separating yourself from your regular routine, immersing yourself in intense Christian community, making obedience to God your primary focus, that can be powerfully inspiring and uplifting. As a former Mountain T.O.P. board member, I’d like to think that Mountain T.O.P. is organized and operated in ways that maximize this effect, but it’s by no means unique to Mountain T.O.P. or any other specific organization.

I think that process requires getting away from your regular surroundings. If you lived in Grundy County, I’m not sure Mountain T.O.P. would have the same impact on you as a volunteer. Frankly,  I think you have to get out of town to get the full impact of being in short-term mission.

If that sounds interesting to you, get in touch with me or go to the Mountain T.O.P. website for more information.

Why AIM? Why you?

I’ve posted or Facebooked several times lately about Mountain T.O.P. Adults in Ministry. Last summer, I went to two separate weeks of AIM (just to be clear, I’m only suggesting you do one). It was the first time in several years I’d been to the summer AIM ministry. I’d been a couple of times to fall AIM weekends, and those are great as well, but to me there’s something special about the kind of community that forms during a week-long event. Plus I have a passion for two programs that are only offered during summer AIM events. I had forgotten just how much I missed the program, and it meant a lot to me to be there.

I’d really like to take some more folks with me in the summer of 2012. I’m already trying to lay some groundwork at church. I already go to church with two Mountain T.O.P. regulars, Andy and Edna Lee Borders; Andy is currently on the Mountain T.O.P. board, just as I used to be. But we’ve never been able to make that connection to convince others to take the plunge. I’d like to change that this year.

But if the reader will indulge me, I’d like to widen my net a little bit, and invite you – yes, you – to join me next summer.

George Bass, the founder of Mountain T.O.P., used to say that trying to describe Mountain T.O.P. to someone who’s never been is like trying to explain what a banana tastes like to someone who’s never eaten one.

But I’m a writer, and I like explaining things. So I’m going to endeavor to explain what this program does for me and why I think you would enjoy it as well. But first, here’s the brand new AIM video, which will take  you about four minutes and change to watch:


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I’d love to live on a mountain top

It’s been a stressful week or two, for reasons I can’t really go into here, and I have to admit that one of my coping mechanisms when I start to feel anxiety and I’m not in a position to do anything productive at that moment has been to daydream about being someplace else.

The past few days, that someplace else has been Camp Cumberland Pines, near Altamont, Tenn.

My Sunday School teacher was out of town this past weekend. The previous week, he announced he’d be gone, but the question of who exactly would fill in for him was left up in the air. When I agreed late in the week to take the job, I asked if it would be OK for me to show some of my video from Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry last summer. I think – I hope – the class enjoyed it. I showed this Summer Plus video:

I did not show my Kaleidoscope video. Instead, I showed the official camp slide show from the Kaleidoscope week, because it also included shots of the home repair projects. My video, of course, pretty much includes only places or programs where I was present to take video (or hand the camera to someone else). I wanted the class to see the home repair projects, because I’m still hoping to take a few more from church with me when I go back to Mountain T.O.P., God willing, next summer.

Anyway, completely unrelated to my Sunday School class, a member of our outreach committee asked me to send him some information about the program; he knows I’m looking to take a group next summer and would like to go.

I thought I’d share with you what I wrote him, in case maybe anyone who reads this blog is looking to spend a week next summer in intense Christian community doing good things for people who need them. I guarantee you’ll get more out than you put in.

Here’s the Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry information you wanted.

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I’d love to live on a Mountain T.O.P.

I have been thinking a lot about Mountain T.O.P. in the past few days. I laid awake in bed last night thinking about it.

I’m not sure why.

I e-mailed the chair of my church’s outreach committee earlier today to tell her that I want to get serious about taking a group from First UMC to a Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry (AIM) week next summer. I’ve been back from AIM less than a month, and I’m already looking forward to next summer.

The cynic in me might think that it’s escapism; I’m frustrated with my current situation, facing some challenges, and waiting patiently to hear about an opportunity for me to improve things. The cynic in me might think that I’m just trying to escape from everyday life by thinking back to an environment where I’m happy, well-socialized, relaxed, with relatively little to worry about. I get neck rubs and affirmations from people who love me. I get to play UNO and tie-dye T-shirts. The cynic in me might accuse myself of not being interested in ministry so much as in self-esteem.

This was the second of two weeks I attended this summer, in late June lapping over into the first couple days of July.


There may be some extent to which that cynical interpretation is true. But I don’t think it’s all that is going on. I really think this idea of putting together a team for next summer is something serious, something I’m being called to do.

Mountain T.O.P. does have AIM weekends in the fall, and I might end up going to one of those. I enjoy them, and they’re a great opportunity to catch up with some of my Mountain T.O.P. friends. But they’re home repair-only; I don’t get to do Kaleidoscope or Summer Plus, the two programs I enjoy so much during the summer AIM weeks. And the community that forms during a long weekend isn’t quite the same as the one that forms during a week-long summer AIM event. I’m looking forward to going back and doing next June what I did this June.

Does that mean I’m not going on a foreign trip next year either? I don’t know yet. I don’t even know what LEAMIS’s schedule is going to be yet, or Mountain T.O.P.’s for that matter, and if I end up making a career change I don’t know what my own vacation situation will be. I don’t think I’m done with foreign mission trips, by any stretch of the imagination. But right now, Mountain T.O.P. is stuck in my imagination.

More about the week

In my last post, I kind of glossed over the camp week itself, especially for those of you who can’t watch the video for one reason or another. It was a tremendous week.

At Summer Plus, I taught Creative Writing in the afternoons. You never know, with a workshop like creative writing, whether you’re going to get students who are interested, or students who got their first choice of workshop in the morning and who got stuck in creative writing because they were assigned to it. This week, I had the former – and I also had two helpful and enthusiastic assistants, one of whom (Diana Woodlock, daughter of Mountain T.O.P. executive director Ed Simmons) is a teacher and coach. We basically ended up with only three students – fewer than originally planned – but that allowed us to have a ratio of one adult to one child.

Family members were sort of a running theme to the week. Several long-time AIM participants brought family members for the first time. Gwynda (Eversole) Patterson brought her husband Greg, Doug  Warner brought his wife Peggy, Robert Matthews brought his son Bobby. I think Diana’s husband Barry was also a first-time participant, although I might be wrong about that one.

In the morning, I found myself assisting in Jan Lloyd-Gohl’s newspaper workshop. Seriously. Jan had the idea of a workshop that would produce a camp newspaper. I grumbled playfully about not being able to get away from the newspaper business, even on vacation, but in truth it was fun helping out. The kids really got into it, interviewing workshop leaders, fellow campers and friends of Mountain T.O.P. One boy drew cartoons. We solicited questions from all of the Summer Plus campers for a “Dear Abby”-style advice column, and the questions were farmed out to various adults to answer. (All of the answers were published under the pseudonym “Aunt Blabby.”)

Several of the kids touched me particularly. One of our creative writing kids was a sweet young girl who has already, at her young age, had to be treated twice for cancer.

One of our Kaleidoscope kids, to whom I’d given one of my spare Reed Bradford crosses, was right on the borderline age between Kaleidoscope and Summer Plus, and got to return for Summer Plus, and so I was delighted to see her again.

After our afternoon workshop each day, we would break the teens into small groups and lead them in a little discussion about our theme word of the day, a character trait like “courage” or “patience.” On the first day, I was reading the prepared questions which had been given us by the staff, and one precocious young woman asked me if I was a therapist. I finally had to show her my business card to prove I was a newspaper reporter, and she playfully referred to me as her therapist for the rest of the week. On a more serious note, she revealed a day or two later that her father was recovering from a stroke, and I told her I’d pray for him.

Do you remember how I fell, badly scraping my knee and elbow, on the first day of Kaleidoscope? Well, on Thursday of Summer Plus, we were playing tag and … I fell, tearing off the small scab that remained on my knee and adding some new scratches.

I got to play several fun games this week. I’d been jonesing for UNO during the Kaleidoscope week but forgot to bring my deck. I brought it this time. I also got to play “Apples To Apples,” about which my co-worker Mary Reeves is always gushing. I loved it too. I may have to buy it some time. And we played “Fact or Crap” one night, which was a real hoot as well.

I also played “Taboo” with the creative writing kids, partly as a way of teaching them about finding new ways to describe things.

I enjoyed tie-dyeing so much during the Kaleidoscope week that I made sure to participate this week. This time, I made another shirt for myself and I also made several to give as gifts.

As I posted to Facebook, I had the same room and the same roommate this week as I’d had during Kaleidoscope – “Smitty” Smith from Smyrna. I didn’t even realize Smitty was coming back for the second week. (He always does home repair.) Smitty and I were the only repeat AIM campers, although Doug Warner had a similar schedule; he was an adult camper in our Youth Summer Ministry at the same time Smitty and I were doing our first AIM week, and then he returned to do AIM with us this week.

Fantastic week, strange ending

I’m going to vent a little bit. This may be a bit more tediously personal than normal. I won’t be offended if you skip it (or if you watch the video without reading the blog post).

It has been the case repeatedly over the years that I will be at a summer AIM event, feeling the best and most relaxed I feel all year, and all of a sudden I’ll experience negative emotions for no reason, a stupid reason, or something that’s obviously not the real reason.

I have never been able to explain this completely. Part of it may be that I feel safer and more relaxed at an AIM camp than I do anywhere else, and stuff bubbles to the surface. I just don’t know.

I had a minor such moment during my Kaleidoscope week, at the end of the day when I felt kind of like a fifth wheel in the Kaleidoscope program. But I had a major one this week – on Friday night, of all times, after what had been otherwise a fantastic week – a successful creative writing workshop, a fun camp experience, and what have you.

My video of the week

At our Friday evening worship, Betsy Galbraith, this year’s AIM director, had a tremendous message challenging us to take the qualities of service and evangelism we’d displayed during the week back with us “to the valley below,” as the Mountain T.O.P. song phrases it. It was a fine message, and I sat there agreeing with it.

And yet, as the worship ended, and Betsy challenged us to seek out someone in the community who’d brought light to our experience over the course of the week, I suddenly felt … depressed. I wanted to be alone. I suddenly didn’t feel like I was capable of taking my Mountain T.O.P. experience to the valley below – exactly the opposite. I’m great at being Mister Christian Community when Christian community is laid out for me on brightly-colored copy paper schedules and when I’m surrounded by well-wishers. In the outside world? Not so much. Many of my problems with finances, weight, career, and socialization have been caused by and/or contributed to my self-centeredness. I sit here in my little cocoon, typing on the keyboard, with the TV cranked up loud enough to drown out my thoughts.

I suddenly felt a sense of guilt – and, in a sort of vicious cycle, that guilt drove me further into myself. I didn’t seek anyone out. One person hugged me (as much as she could, since I remained seated) and then I bolted from the AIM pavilion into the darkness. I eventually found myself sitting alone in the dark on the Friends cabin porch, crying for no reason but my own stupid self pity. Eventually, I went to bed – and even then, instead of using the door that leads from the porch into the lobby, where my friends were happily reminiscing about the week, I snuck around to a side entrance where I wouldn’t be noticed.

To make matters worse, some allergies (I think) which had bothered me a little on Wednesday night and Thursday hit full-force on Friday, and my throat was scratchy and my eyes were burning.

When I woke up Saturday morning, I was still in the feedback loop, still in a foul mood. We’d been asked to load up our cars prior to breakfast, and when I got mine loaded at 6:15 a.m. I got into it, put the keys into the ignition, and drove out of camp. I made it all the way to Altamont, several miles away, before thinking better of it and turning around. Once I was in company again, at breakfast, morning devotion, evaluations and our cleaning of camp, I was a little less moody, but still somewhat subdued – and, after closing circle, I slipped quickly away rather than make the rounds of hugging people goodbye.

At sharing Friday night, maybe an hour before my breakdown, I told the assembled crowd how delighted I was at having rediscovered the summer AIM experience, and how it had been a bright spot in what’s been a difficult and depressing 12 months. I still think so – and maybe that was what I was really emotional about. Maybe I just didn’t want to return home to the career I hate, the resources I’ve squandered, the drab little cocoon I’ve fashioned for myself.

I need a radical change, and I’ve known it for some time. I just don’t know exactly what it is or how to accomplish it.

Safe arrival

Arrived safely after a pleasant lunch with some of my AIM friend at Lorena’s in Monteagle. Did not realize that Smitty, my roommate from two weeks ago, would be back this week — and they have us together again, and in the same room!

Ready to go

Well, I seem to be just about packed, except for the last few things I can’t throw in the suitcase until after I get up in the morning. I am, believe it or not, sleeping in swim trunks tonight so that I can take every available pair of underwear to camp with me.

I have more to pack this time than I did two weeks ago, since I’m leading a workshop at Summer Plus. At Kaleidoscope, I was just (allegedly) helping, and I didn’t have to worry about providing content.

According to Rebecca this morning, I will have one session of creative writing, in the afternoon. Jan Lloyd-Gohl, in her workshop, is going to have her kids write a camp newspaper, and so I’m going to speak to her workshop at some point about my experience in newspapers.

Mountain T.O.P. posts a list of individual campers online for each AIM event (and a list of church groups for each youth ministry week) so that you can check and see if your friends are coming. I’ve never asked recruiter Samantha Tashman about this, but I’m presuming that once the summer camp ministry season starts, she and the rest of the staff have a lot less time available for updating this online list. So it’s possible – though I doubt it — that there may be last-minute signups not reflected on the list as it now appears online. Even if there are a few last-minute additions, however, this will be a smaller camp than the one I was with two weeks ago. That’s good for camp community, not so good in terms of the amount of work we can accomplish. Any last-minute additions would tend to be home repair volunteers, not Summer Plus, since the list of available Summer Plus workshops needs to be tied down at some point prior to camp.

There are a lot of familiar names on the list, however, including

  • Summer Plus stalwart Robert Matthews (who will teach two different workshops – photography and juggling – and is great at both);
  • Former AIM staffer Sonja Goold, who did me a great favor earlier this year by recommending the Daily Audio Bible podcast;
  • Kim Lachler, with whom – like Sonja – I’ve been on a LEAMIS foreign mission trip;
  • Gwynda Patterson, a past AIM camp director; and
  • Long-time friend of Mountain T.O.P. Doug Warner. Doug was, like me, at Cumberland Pines two weeks ago. But he wasn’t an AIM camper; instead, he had accompanied youth from his home church, Germantown UMC in Shelby County, to the Youth Summer Ministry camp taking place simultaneous to AIM. I got to wave at him once or twice. This week, he’ll be at AIM.

It will be good to see everyone.

Two weeks ago, I had to get up very early to help cook men’s club breakfast on the morning I left for camp. I can sleep in a little this time.

Google me

Here’s a weird one; I happened to look up Mountain T.O.P.’s base camp, Cumberland Pines, on Google Earth tonight. Cumberland Pines is where I spent last week and will spend the next one.

Here’s the funny part. In the Google Earth imagery, there’s one little white vehicle parked in between the dining hall and Friends Cabin. It’s hard to judge from the fuzzy image, but I think it may be my car.

The date on the imagery is Oct. 7, 2010, which was the first night of an Adults In Ministry weekend last fall. I attended that weekend. I don’t recall being the first one there, especially since I would have had to drive up after work, although that would certainly be typical of me.

A great, great week

Fun in camp

I returned this morning from a completely satisfactory week at Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry. As I’ve explained recently, I was on the Mountain T.O.P. board for 12 years over a 14-year period starting in 1994. I love the AIM program and used to regularly attend two different week-long AIM events each summer, just as I’m doing this summer. I would do a week of Kaleidoscope – an arts program for special-needs kids, ages 6-11, from the remote and poverty-stricken hills of Grundy County. I would also do a week of Summer Plus, an enrichment program for teens 12 and up.

However, all but one of the mission trips I’ve taken since 2003 have fallen in mid-summer, making it difficult or impossible for me to go to AIM as well. I made one week in 2006, somehow. I’ve also been to a few of the fall AIM weekends (at which only home repair is offered), and while those are fun they aren’t the same kind of camp community you get at a week-long event.

I’m taking a break from the foreign trips this year, and that opened the door for me to head back to AIM. I was a caregiver at Kaleidoscope this week; a week from tomorrow, I will return to camp for a week of Summer Plus, teaching creative writing.

Monday morning was, in some ways, a little shaky. It started well – I led a morning devotional which was well-received. But then, as Reenie Fulton and I prepared to leave on our morning transportation route, I made a pit stop and managed to dunk my smartphone in the toilet bowl. (It dried out and is fine.)

Then, when we got back to camp, the second thing happened. We had a severely-autistic boy in camp, and we’d been briefed by the Kaleidoscope staff that he was a runner. Sure enough, during our opening circle, he made a break for it and I set out in pursuit over the bumpy ground of Camp Cumberland Pines.

Before I could catch up, however, I made a three-point landing, badly skinning my right knee and elbow and stretching my left ankle. (I was wearing shorts, as I did for most of the week.)

I spent much of Monday following the autistic boy. Once he was inside the dining hall, running away wasn’t as much of a problem, but he wasn’t able to focus on or relate to the workshop content, and someone needed to keep him out of harm’s way. I did the best I could. It was an exhausting day, and I don’t think I’d have been able to keep it up for a week, but yet it was strangely satisfying.

However, the staff and my teammates – seeing me hobbling around on my ankle, with big dramatic gauze bandages on my knee and elbow – decided that the next day, we needed to start rotating the caregivers from workshop to workshop, something we hadn’t originally planned to do. The next day, still in hobble mode, I felt … lost. There wasn’t much for me to do in the workshop I was assisting. The group of kids in that group were fairly focused and well-behaved. On the occasions when I did need to deal with one of our more troublesome kids – those with behavior problems, arising from a variety of factors – it seemed as if I would struggle and someone else – one of our two Kaleidoscope staff members, or one of my teammates with child care or education experience – would step in and handle the situation much better than I’d been handling it. By the end of Tuesday, I was starting to think I preferred Monday.

Let me back up a bit and explain a little bit about my involvement. I have long been an evangelist for the fact that we need more male participation in Kaleidoscope. Some (not all) of these kids come from poor home situations, and many of them are desperately in lack of loving, Christian male role models. “Uncle” Ben Neal, a great friend of Mountain T.O.P., was a staple of Kaleidoscope for many years, and the kids just adore him, for his grandfatherly personality and because he does a magic show when he’s at Kaleidoscope. But he’s been sidelined the past two summers. Marty Robbins signed up for AIM as a home repair volunteer one year but a shoulder injury the week before camp resulted in him being sent to Kaleidoscope. The kids worshipped the ground he walked on, fought over the chance to try on  his cowboy hat, and Marty was an instant convert. He signed up for Kaleidoscope himself the next year.

This year, however, we had two female Kaleidoscope staff members, six female AIM campers working in Kaleidoscope, a female professional artist from nearby Altamont, and … me.

I flattered myself in advance by telling myself how badly the kids needed a male presence. But I don’t have the bag of tricks that a professional speech therapist, or even an experienced mother and grandmother, professes. Even a father – and happy Father’s Day to all of you – would have more experience than I do. And Tuesday, I just felt like a fifth wheel, like amateur George Plimpton trying to play professional football in order to write a magazine article about it.

Fortunately, our sharing session Tuesday night was broken down by ministry, and so the Kaleidoscope staff and volunteers ended up having an emotional and cathartic session. The home repair folks had long since finished their sharing and were waiting on us so that the camp community could start our nightly worship, but we needed every second of the time we took. I wasn’t the only one who felt the way I did, either. The woman who’d taken over care of the autistic boy was insecure over his own abilities – which was absolutely absurd, because she was doing a tremendous job. She has a quiet, sweet spirit and a patience that just made her perfect to deal with him.

After our sharing on Tuesday, everything just dropped into place on Wednesday. I felt more confident in dealing with the kids and less threatened when I needed someone else’s help in doing so.

Kaleidoscope tends toward a close-knit team of volunteers, and this was no exception. I had a blast. Katie Phillips, a former Mountain T.O.P. summer staff member, taught her workshop group to make rag dolls with a sort of therapeutic value to them – a stand-in to deal with negative emotions. But the dolls themselves were just fun to make, and – grumbling all the while about losing my guy license – I joined the ladies of Kaleidoscope, and a couple of others, late one night as Katie taught us how to make the dolls for fun.

In a summer AIM camp, there are usually something like three-quarters of the campers (representing men and women of all ages) doing major home repair, with the remaining quarter doing Summer Plus, Kaleidoscope or Quest, whichever happens to be offered that week. (Quest is a high-adventure program for teens from Grundy County.) Our AIM community as a whole was a great one. It included a majority of Mountain T.O.P. first-timers, which is always fun and which gives the camp a special crackle and enthusiasm. My Summer Plus week will have far more returning AIM veterans, which is nice in its own way.

The summer AIM staff this year – camp director Betsy, Kaleidoscope coordinators Dani and Rebecca, major home repair coordinator Amelia and program coordinator Mark, who was responsible for our life in camp – were outstanding, and one of many reasons I’m looking forward to getting back to the mountain a week from tomorrow.

It’s going to be a busy week. I’ll have to catch up at work, of course, and I still have to do some preparation for my Summer Plus workshop, and I have to write a sermon this week so that I can deliver it at First UMC on July 3, after I return from Summer Plus.