Outreach & Missions

A Present Day Parable: Jesus and a Few Dozen Cupcakes

It's my turn to preach this Sunday. I don’t normally advertise but it also happens to be the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving. Thus I bring it up as cause for my lengthy reflection upon the events of the past 365 days or so while reposing in my posh, executive suite. The past year seems in my estimation to have had more than its fair share of intriguing peculiarities. Some folks, including my own mother would likely attribute this to my own general peculiarity. I suppose that may be true, but I’m not sure it makes me any more intriguing than the average bear. Nonetheless, here's a short story about how God has orchestrated circumstances for his glory in the past year.

A year or so ago I had never heard of a Good News Club. But when my daughter started first grade at our neighborhood elementary school we found out that one lived there. We were only mildly curious mostly because of the teacher who spearheaded the effort. She is married to the head football coach whom I work with at a local high school. However, given our family’s weekly ministry routine our kids were already being shuttled to church multiple nights of the week and several hours on Sunday. Our daughter had not expressed an interest in staying after school and we were not chomping at the bit to enroll her in the club.

But that spring I found myself searching for means by which to rejuvenate our church’s approach to the community at large. Every day for fifteen years there has been a large elementary school staring at us from directly across the street. Several of our parishioners teach there. Yet other than those teachers and a handful of families in our congregation we had virtually no connection whatsoever with more than 50 staff people and over 600 students and their families at the school.

So we bought some cupcakes, took them across the street early one morning, and left them in the faculty lounge.

Suddenly, it was on! A congregation of about 400 people adopted a school of over 600 students in a fraction of the time that it took my wife and me to adopt two kids. Soon a backpack and school supply drive was in the works for the following August. The question remained though as to how to sustain this relationship throughout the year on something more substantial than cupcakes. That’s when the Good News Club at my daughter’s school came to mind.

I sent a text message to my head coach while he was out of town at a clinic. In my excitement I simply asked, “Can I have your wife’s number?” Realizing how oddly suspicious that might have appeared I quickly provided some context and received her digits after a few minutes. Several phone calls, emails, and some information gathering later we were ready to launch the inaugural Good News Club across the street. All we needed were some volunteers.

The initial skeleton crew consisted of myself, an enthusiastic snowbird whose company I desperately assured her I would be happy to have until January or whenever she headed south, a retired educator who was promptly waylaid by major surgery, the school librarian, and the music teacher. I figured at least I would not be required to sing. But then it became apparent that the club would be best suited to meet on Tuesdays after school. That conflicted with my class schedule. Suddenly even I was out of the picture and things were looking grim. Our senior pastor and one other individual bravely stepped forward and vowed to bail out the ship before it sunk in port. Meanwhile I strong-armed yet another former teacher and started working behind the scenes.

Ready or not, time came to dive in with the first official meeting of the Good News Club. I delivered snacks for 40 to the school office that morning, wished them well, and headed to class in Washington. I thought, “40! Now that would be quite an achievement if we managed to get 40 kids to show up.”

I returned to town that evening and learned that 40 had indeed shown up, as well as an additional 32. The next week there were over 90. The senior pastor was in well over his head! We began calling in favors. More teachers joined the fray, including those several who attend our church. Another senior here, a college student there, and before you know it there’s a team of about 15 people holding on to this dragon by the tail…and still pleading for help! Meanwhile another half dozen or so work to literally feed the dragon, coordinating club snacks each week.

This week nearly 120 children attended the Good News Club at our adopted elementary school across the street. My snowbird friend sends me an email list of kids’ prayer requests each week, some of which would break your heart. You might say we have raised our profile in the cafeteria and on the playground over there. More importantly you might realize we have, quite by surprise, raised the profile of the gospel of Jesus Christ over there. We estimate that of the students involved in the club, 40 or so have no church affiliation. Ah! There they are. That must be the 40 that I initially thought we would be fortunate to have show up at all!

To me the events surrounding the Good News Club are just one small reminder this Thanksgiving of the blessings God is capable of. When I consider that Jesus fed thousands with a few loaves of bread and a couple fish it should really come as no surprise. This all started with a few dozen cupcakes.

A Long Way from Home: Reflecting on 5 Trips to Maine

By the time you find your way to the small village of East Sumner along state highway 219 in southwest Maine you will have already noticed the apparent lack of amenities that most city slickers take for granted. For example there is but one ramshackle convenience store on the far western edge of the hamlet. Whether or not the pumps are actually dispensing gasoline on any given day is a matter of uncertainty. But if the 1980's style dials are indeed turning then it pays, even at $3.79 a gallon, to stop in and buy at least half a tank since the next best chance is a considerable distance downwind and uphill. So that's what I did on Friday morning, less than 24 hours prior to closing the book on our fifth consecutive summer excursion to Maine. After assuring myself that the next day's early start home would include our group's uninterrupted passage at least as far as interstate 95, I replaced the nozzle and headed inside to pay; no "Pay at the pump" in these parts. 

As I waited for the clerk whom I'd never seen before to run my card I noticed a glass top freezer off to one side stocked with none other than Turkey Hill ice cream. This was a big deal for me, having grown up just a few miles from the real Turkey Hill (it's a bluff along the Susquehanna River in southeastern Pennsylvania) and the dairy farm from which the ice cream and other wonderful products originated. In my memory it's still just a local "mom and pop" milking operation. I remarked to the gal behind the counter that I was impressed Turkey Hill had extended its reach into the deep woods of Maine. She smiled and said, "You're with that Bible school group, aren't you?"

Guilty as charged. Of course I was. I was driving a large, gas-guzzling land yacht able to accomodate 15 people and, if I wasn't careful, also likely to roll over like a year-old puppy at the slightest hint of a cross wind. I signed the receipt with a real pen, no computerized signing pad here, said thank you and recommended the cookies 'n cream, then headed back to the van. Like an unsuspecting teenage driver who inadvertently passes a cop parked alongside the road I began mentally reviewing our group's and my own performance throughout the week. How many stupid things had I or someone else done or said that the locals may have noticed?  What had we done or said well that might have won some people over? Even a group on a mission trip can blend in and get lost in an urban metropolis, but not in a rural outpost. In East Sumner our group of Dixie rebs attracts a lot of attention. 

I'm led to believe that most if not all of that attention over the past several years has been positive. That's what the local Yanks I've come to know, most of whom don't waste their words, have told me. I've no reason not to believe them. Our little tikes play with their little tikes. Our teenagers interact, albeit a bit awkwardly at times, with theirs. They work with purpose and determination on Vacation Bible School, firewood, and berry picking. Our older folks, among which I count myself, mingle with their older folks and talk about gardens and church, weather and the kids. We all make fun of one another's unique brand of speaking English. 

The point then is certainly not to say that we'd drawn too much negative publicity to ourselves and thus it's a good thing we left the next morning. Quite the opposite in fact. It's amazing how word gets around in a small town. People observe and report. Good news I think travels just as fast and equally as far as any other type. But it doesn't seem to travel quite as well when we are at home. 

Our little tikes go to travel soccer and piano lessons. Our teenagers are concerned with part-time jobs, extra-curricular activities, and AP courses. And our older folks, among which I count myself, check email on our smart phones and rush from one appointment to the next. When I stop to get gas in Spotsylvania the clerk doesn't ask me if I'm from that church on Leavells Road because I don't even have reason to interact with the clerk, let alone strike up a conversation about ice cream.  

Upon returning from this year's trip to Maine a friend at the church asked me, "So what is it about Maine that makes our youth want to go there so badly year after year?" As I reflect on it I don't think there's anything magical about the place itself...aside perhaps from the enduring hope of next year seeing a moose. Maybe it's just that in Maine we afford ourselves the opportunity to experience, as the welcome sign says after you've crossed the Piscataqua River, "the way life should be."

The marching bands are beating out their cadences and coach's whistles are blowing on school campuses across Spotsylvania County. While the last weeks of August are some of the laziest there are sure signs of the frenetic pace about to return. Thus before it does perhaps it is appropriate to set for ourselves a few goals, Three Quarter Year's resolutions if you will. Let us resolve to give the greatest commandment, "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind," (Matthew 22:37) its due this year and to teach our kids to create space to do the same. Likewise let's not forget to "Love your neighbor as yourself" (v. 39), paying attention to those we encounter at the bus stop, coffee shop, and should you ever actually find yourself inside one, the gas station. Remember, even if the only people watching are our own children, people are indeed watching, listening, and reporting. They, like the rest of the creation, long for the people of God to take seriously that to which and those to whom they have been called.