As we approach the month of April, in another week or so, we would usually be talking about summer staff recruitment and camper registration levels and new program ideas. We would see Spring Break on the horizon and prepare for our week long day camp program for when school is out for a week. We’d be excited about longer days and warmer temperatures and the telltale signs that summer is on its way.
Instead, we aren’t sure how many summer staff we are going to need and camper registrations have been reduced to a trickle. Spring Break is coming, but with school out a week already and five more weeks of no-school ahead – there is no such thing as a break from school. God has blessed us with a week of mostly sunshine, but instead of being happy for the coming of the summer we are happy we can be outside in a more germ-free environment and because it is lifting our spirits a bit in the midst of growing depression.
How did we get here? When is it going to end? What will things be like when it is over? Will The Firs ever be the same? How does something happen that turns schedules and gatherings and livelihoods and security upside down not just in our community and state but literally across the world? And, what is God up to in the midst of it all?
As a leader, this is where I usually trot out some good, tried and true clichés to encourage people to “hang in there.” As the leader of a Christian ministry, I have a pocket full of good verses to put on display that remind us – God is in control. Believe me, I’ve used most of them already. But this time, with you as my witness, I’m going to do something different.
I am scrolling the calendar ahead on my computer to five months from today – August 20, 2020. On that day, I am telling myself to write “How Do Things Look Now – Part Two” and like this one, post it on our website as a Letter from Tom to you. I’m not making a prediction and there is nothing special about that date. But one thing I have learned – especially over the last few years – is that God is always at work, always brings about good in the midst of pain and over time gives us at least glimpses of what He is doing. We’ll see then what those glimpses might look like.
I will write in-between now and then but you can hold me accountable for part two. Until then, hang in there and don’t forget God is in control.
As I sit at my desk here in January, I look out my window at a winter wonderland of snow covered fir boughs on our property. I see kids from our ASA program enjoying the snow, even though it’s not much over 20 degrees outside. It’s not what you would call a typical scene here at The Firs but it is a beautiful one, nonetheless. And, with the beauty, comes a reminder. God doesn’t just surround us with the beauty of His creation so that we can enjoy it – though we do. He surrounds us with His creation so that we can hear from Him.
You probably remember Psalm 19 where David says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.” “Declare” and “proclaim,” assigned to what God has made, infer that there is a level of communication going on. And, if the One who communicates is God, then it’s a good idea to pay attention.
But, there is a potential problem that could exist. Even though we live and do camp in the midst of incredible beauty, we can neglect listening to what God is saying if we don’t pause in order to do so. And even though we give kids an opportunity to live and play outside, we can fail to point out to them the source of the beauty all around. And, as a result, the message that God is intent on delivering may fall on deaf ears; a message that declares the reality of His existence and the extent of His power.
We are asking God for clarity this year on a number of fronts. We want to be aware of what He is doing now and what He aims to do in the future here at The Firs. We want clarity in regards to His provision and in regards to the people he wants us to serve. But maybe, before that can happen, we need to ask for clarity as we take every chance we can to listen to what He is saying through what He has made.
I trust that will be your experience this year as we aim to make it ours.
In His Service,
PS: You can SUPPORT US in our year of clarity knowing your gift will make a big difference.
Not only is the summer of 2019 in the rearview mirror, but Thanksgiving and then Christmas are on the near horizon. In between, we have served and continue to serve churches, children and youth, and even began a brand new Firs program called “Firs & Fiddleheads Forest School.” All I will say, for now, is that this new preschool program is very cool and extends our reach into the neighboring community in an extremely creative manner.
I am happy to report that this first weekend in November sees us serving our first group of the season up at the Chalet. What follows will be another busy season of winter activities up on the mountain. The thing is, not all that long ago, I seriously doubted that we would have a Chalet season at all, as a failed sewer system put that in jeopardy. But God is good, the new system is getting near to completion and the heavy snow is holding off while that happens.
The negative publicity The Firs received at the beginning of the summer knocked us sideways, both emotionally and financially. We lost about 18% of our expected summer registrations, along with the subsequent revenue loss. On top of that came the news of the Chalet and we couldn’t help wonder what God was up to. Our focus, our mission and our programs hadn’t changed, but we found ourselves, nonetheless, under attack, misrepresented and branded by some as an unloving, uncaring organization – the polar opposite of what we work to be.
Time will be needed for us to sort through all that took place this year. We are very motivated to do better in every arena, from hiring, to communicating, to understanding the core of who we are. There are many layers to this effort, as you can imagine. Meanwhile, we have been encouraged by God’s faithfulness. We were encouraged because thousands of kids still went through our programs this summer at Firwood and Fircreek and had an experience that, for some, was life changing. Summer staff members, struggling with what to make of all that happened, stepped up to our purpose and mission and, with a united front, helped campers “encounter Jesus and experience the love of God”. Nothing was more significant coming out of this summer than that.
But, one more thing deserves attention. As we faced an unknown future, financially, a well-known God did an amazing thing. He prompted over 65 people to come forward in support of our ministries and to give of their resources in order to help with the shortfall. Many did this without prompting, some giving to The Firs for the first time ever, and many gave more than they have ever given. As a result, our shortfall (over $200,000) has been made up and we now face the end of our fiscal year without the prospects of a net loss. An absolutely incredible blessing!
Our goal, in the weeks and months ahead, is to pay attention to God and what He is saying and doing. And, as usual, that means to pay attention to the opportunities we have in regards to people. Before you go on to other things, I would love for you to watch this brief video https://thefirs.org/#video. It’s a glimpse of the people we served last summer and I’m certain you will be moved by it and reminded of the reason The Firs exists.
We all want to invite kids into camp, not scare them away, which is why you will probably never see “theological” in the name of a Christian camp. The Firs Theological Camp and Retreat Center, for instance, lacks a bit of appeal with a nine-year-old. However, the truth is, we, like other Christian camp ministries, sit on a foundation of theology. And, though I run the risk of scaring you away, I want to talk for a bit about that theology. (Fair warning – I’m going to use words such as theology, doctrine and beliefs interchangeably, but I think you will be able to follow my drift. And, here’s your chance.) While theology forms the basis of our mission and purpose, when our doctrine finds itself without feet, then our beliefs are not much more than words.
Buried in our camp manuals, on our camp websites and in some of our key organizational documents, you will find our Statements of Faith. These contain the usual 6-12 points about what we believe regarding God, Jesus, sin, salvation and faith – the usual suspects. And, while they are critical to our mission, they seldom formally surface as a group. Instead, various points of these doctrines tend to show up in the stories we teach to campers or in the challenging words of our camp speakers.
But, here is a question worth dwelling on: Does our doctrine reflect who we are or simply what we believe? This, of course, has been thoroughly tested this summer. One of our beliefs, here at The Firs, has to do with what we feel the Bible teaches about marriage and about human sexuality. In today’s culture, especially, we felt it important, to have that articulated. And, so, these belief statements found a home right alongside what we believe about God and Jesus and salvation, and there we left it.
Then one day we woke up and found ourselves severely challenged in regards to that doctrine. Our hiring policy was questioned, as was our understanding of the Scriptures. We were told we didn’t care about people and were narrow-minded and (most hurtful) we didn’t love. Messages came fast and furious from every form of communication, as did picketers and a salivating news media.
Well, we rose up in defense like a mama bear protecting her cubs. “That’s not us,” we wanted to shout to the world – “you don’t understand!” And, somewhere in our anguish, we discovered our doctrine had no feet. Oh, we had policies and expectations of behavior for our staff and we screened and trained accordingly. But, we weren’t prepared with how “what we believe” would need to navigate through the community we sought to engage. We didn’t think enough about how to communicate truth that appeared to conflict with other (equal) truths. And, we didn’t ask enough “what does this mean” questions, as we looked beyond the statements into relationships and even into life itself.
Giving feet to doctrine doesn’t mean backing off the truth of what we believe or weakening our resolve, but it does mean applying the right amount of grace to that truth. It means paying as much attention to practice as doctrine and allowing that practice a broader range of motion than what comfort might previously have allowed.
I don’t have all the answers, but am highly motivated to seek after them. May God give us all the grace and the courage to find the feet our beliefs require.
Every group that we serve here at The Firs, we partner with, in a very real sense. They are getting away to camp for their retreat with some specific objectives in mind and we do our best while they are here to help them meet those objectives. In a sense, we remove distractions, take away as many “chores” as possible and provide for them a quiet, enjoyable environment.
One of our recent retreat leaders had this to say about their stay here: “Our focus this weekend was on prayer, and many people I talked to said the weekend was simply relaxing. Nothing felt rushed, just restful.” As our Guest Group Coordinator (Emilee) ironically said, “There is nothing very restful about hosting a group here as it is generally a matter of running around making sure all of their details are set.” Then she went on to say something very profound to our mission. She said, “I feel like we get to bear the burden of busyness and stress for our guests. Dare I say it is similar to Jesus taking our burdens and giving us lighter loads?”
I think Emilee hit the nail on the head. Camp retreats are about getting away to listen. They are about slowing down and paying attention. To the degree that we allow that to happen through our service we are truly partnering with groups so that people can hear from God. Before the year is out, we will have hosted nearly 150 groups at three of our sites. And, with each one we have the opportunity to clear the path for those conversations to take place.
I’m sure it is not a surprise to you when I say that not everything works out perfectly at camp during the summer. Not every summer staff member meets expectations. Not everyone stays healthy and not every camper responds positively to the message of Jesus. These things are true. But, so is this: Counselors will grow and mature significantly as the summer goes along and they will find that they can be used by God in ways they’ve never imagined. Speakers at Centerstage or JAM time will show up and what they have to say for the week will end up being just what was needed for that group of campers. Campers who come to camp with no interest whatsoever in hearing anything “religious,” will have a major perspective change as they experience the love of God from counselors and staff every day. And, wisdom and strength and patience and guidance will show up in abundance from God – just as it is needed. How do I know those things will be true? Because they happen every summer here at The Firs.
Want to know something else that is true? It is April and that means we are in the midst of recruiting and then preparing summer staff members for our team at Firwood and Fircreek. The search is on to find committed young leaders willing to give up their summer (and good paying job) for the sake of kids who need to encounter Jesus. And, it is about finding willing and qualified life guards and cooks and program planners and CIT leaders. At times, it seems like the whole thing is impossible! How do we find the right combination of skills and maturity and passion and experience? I don’t know – but God does. Please pray with me this month that just who is needed to serve this summer will show up and say “yes” to a life changing experience.