Before you read this, know that I didn’t plan on it being so long. Currently, it’s almost four full pages on Word. Oops. I do hope you make it through to the end though. However long, it’s a pretty general account of the things that have happened to me this past year, detailing the Campus Outreach Summer Beach Project. The Lord has been far better to me than I have ever deserved, and I hope this account of the summer will prove it.
Summer is a special time for me. Every summer I’ve spent in America since I’ve moved here has been radically different and life changing. In a way, it’s hard to claim every summer has been life changing, if not for the lack of experience then more for the fact that three summers, even consecutive ones, don’t count as a new rule within the whole scheme of life (especially when people my age are prone to rapid development in a short amount of time, so deciding between seeing it as multiple life-changing experiences in quick succession or one very radical period of life is not something I’m able to do*). Even so, the person I am today is not the same as the person I was when I first came to America, or even when I started the summer of 2017.
I didn’t know what I was going to get into before the summer began. At the time I was studying both Criminal Justice and Theology, a member of the Liberty Crew team, and a member of my dorm leadership team. It was not uncommon for me to set my alarm before I went to sleep, only for it to tell me I had about three-and-a-half hours before it would go off so I could go to Crew practice. If I was lucky, I would get another hour or so of sleep after breakfast before going to class. My relationships on my dorm often had me stay up until around 01:30 in the morning, with Monday and Wednesday nights being completely taken up by leadership obligations. In the midst of that, I managed to hold a 3.6 GPA between five classes. I say none of this to brag (since at this point I don’t really consider it as brag-worthy as much as stupid), but to say this: I wasn’t doing too well.
Because of the sheer amount of things I had to juggle in my time, a small thought crept in and took hold. A thought that told me I could do it, that I had things put together, that no matter what came my way, I could take it in strides. The thought that I was better. Not better in the sense of feeling well or poor, but better than, where just about anything could come after that “than.”
Thus, when I finished the Crew season and finally hooked up with the Campus Outreach Summer Beach Project in the summer of 2017 as a Room Leader, I had few plans and little ambition for personal growth (after all, who needs to grow when you can do just about anything you need to?). Granted, I knew some of my traits were untested up until that point, like with evangelism or certain leadership aspects, but I figured that once I needed them, they’d be there for me.
I met the guys I’d be rooming with for the next eight weeks after my first few days at the project, which was a time set aside for leadership training. While it hardly does justice to sum them up this way, by the end of the first “move-in day,” I had met Dylan, the louder silly one, Freddie, the detached people-reader, and Isaac, the rule-follower.** I gathered quickly enough that they were cool guys, very relaxed and easy going. I felt blessed to have such a cool room.
Being cool, though, is not as burden-free as I hoped. Every Wednesday was date night, in which one all-male room would ask another all-female room out, and for the first few weeks, we absolutely crushed it. We had some cool date proposals (a musical performance of a song we had written just 15 minutes prior), cool date ideas (a personally cooked dinner and mini golf), and some pretty cool people (yours truly and the aforementioned roommates). When the idea of being the “cool room” swells in your head, there’s a certain dread of the burnout that hits around the third week when you see how tired you are and know you still have five weeks left. Suddenly, you’re not the cool room, just a cool room, along with some other pretty cool rooms that have managed to step up their game.
Pride has a way of telling you when it feels unnoticed or unappreciated, though, because it makes you feel the exact same way. So when the opportunity arrived where I could finally show my talents and get appreciated for it, I jumped at it. The time for sunrise beach worship had come, and if I knew one thing, it’s that I could sing, play guitar, and lead worship. I even had the help of a friend who knew how to play violin and another on a guitar. We planned our songs, practiced a couple times, and played for real one morning on the beach. There was a good number of people there, maybe around 50, all singing with us whatever words they knew.
A few people clapped by the end of the worship. As we had started to pack up our instruments, some friends came up and praised our playing. They talked about how good the violin was, how well the other guitar sounded, and where they should go for breakfast. As I listened for the “Good job, Sam,” and “Man, you can really belt it out,” all I heard were decisions to get pancakes instead of eggs. I waited for those sweet words of praise from this group of friends I had known for maybe three weeks. And I cared about it. When nothing came my way, I felt dejected. And when a friend finally did mention my playing later in the day, I cared nothing for it, because it was too little, too late.
My pride didn’t just want praise from the way I worshiped, though (which is, I think, the most ironic phrase I’ve written this year). As a room leader, part of my responsibility was to organize room Bible studies and talk about it with my guys. While I didn’t have plans drawn out as to when or how it would happen, I trusted myself that I’d be able to get it done whenever or however it needed to get done. Not only that, but I trusted that I would kill it in the Bible studies, relating it back to other parts of the Bible like a boss, so that everyone would know how knowledgeable I was.
Of the eight weeks of project, I managed to keep our Bible study routine consistent for maybe two. Once we got our work schedules and found very mismatching times between the four of us in the room (read: once it got past the first degree of trying), I kind of gave up on the “consistency” thing. I occasionally encouraged my guys to keep up with the reading, and we made a prayer wall of post-its, and we would often pray together, but my pride found very little outlet in my leadership. Even on the days when I was able to show my biblical knowledge and put things together, I was soon asked to branch out of my favorite book (Romans), and talk about something else. Every avenue through which my pride knew how to subtly show itself was being shut down.
I was told, at one point during the summer, that leadership is the best way to fast-track all of your weaknesses to the spotlight. I was also shown by the end of the summer how true that statement was. Things that I thought were strengths weren’t as strong as I thought. Things that I thought were untested strengths proved to be weaknesses. Things I thought might be challenging for me, I found I was terrible at. All the while, I’m surrounded by people who seem very put together, people who have been there before (as most room leaders have at least one project under their belt already), who know how to lead others well.
Despite what you might have thought if you’ve made it this far, this post isn’t meant to be a pity party for poor me. Neither is this a confession of all the problems I had over the summer. Everything I’ve written thus far is to prove that what I write next is all the work of God, and to tell of what I’ve seen this summer.
As I wrote before, I had a cool room. While my guys and I are sworn to secrecy about most of the topics of our discussions, they were nonetheless riveting. Throughout the two months of the project, we probably spent less than 40 hours apart, outside of work. Naturally, there was some tension here and there within our little group, but it was nothing that ever stayed hidden for long, and we dealt with things as they came up. Some of the most memorable parts of my summer are when I was in tears, both from sadness and laughter, with those guys. Much of the perspective I’ve gained over the summer is no doubt because of the way God used them for me. There is little doubt in my mind that they’ve helped shape my growth as a person and as a Christian this past summer more than I’ve helped any of theirs.
Yet they are not without their own growth as well. The upward movement in their desire for God, their ambition to lead as men with potential families, their language and treatment and care for others is all but quantifiably measurable in its growth. Despite my weakness in engaging people I don’t know, they confidently stood before strangers and shared their faith. They stepped out and formed relationships with co-workers beyond what is considered socially “normal.” When my prayers were about my growth, my development, they made a prayer wall to go to God with any request written down, often for other people in the project.
Change occurred not only in my room, but in the project as a whole. People who didn’t know the gospel were saved by God through college students looking to share their faiths. I recall one story of some girls on our team being led to a woman who had planned to commit suicide the following day. As they shared more of their lives with this woman, and dug deeper into her life as well, it was clear that God had brought them there on that day specifically for that woman. They shared the gospel, they prayed with her, they brought her to our church that next Sunday. To my knowledge, God saved that woman on that day, as she came to accept the Gospel.***
Beyond that, relationships formed that will last lifetimes, and not a few people are already wanting to go back next summer. The amount of training we received in prayer, Bible study, leadership, evangelism, and life management is incomparable to what you would find elsewhere. Granted, it’s not without imperfection (see the above comment on week three burnout), but if seeing God work so much so quickly requires a few less-than-preferable things on my part, far be it from me to correct Him.
And very little of the development in people, if any of it, occurred because of me. My pride stopped me from going as far as I could, from initiating with people because it wouldn’t be about me. Yet God worked mightily. Near the end of the summer, when I was in a bit of a pitiful state, God came in and broke the last good foothold of my pride. It wasn’t with shame, or embarrassment, or humiliation either. It was through the small passage of Philippians 2:6-9.
I won’t walk through my whole struggle with the passage, but I will share where I landed. Christ, in humility, never felt the need to prove Himself. “Although He was God,” He never felt it necessary to demand praise from people. He was never worried with what people thought of Him when he spoke to gentiles, or Samaritans, or lepers. He was worthy of the praise of the universe, most of all from the people He created, and never once did He feel bad about Himself when they called to crucify Him. Throughout all the rejection, the cursing, and the doubt, He saw obedience to God as worth more than anyone’s opinion of Him.
Pride will always have something to prove, with both feet firmly rooted in insecurity. It will always want more, and everything it gets is never enough. It’s too afraid to listen for fear of not being able to speak or be heard. It’s too afraid to speak truthfully for fear of sounding foolish or being rejected. Humility, on the other hand, has nothing of itself to prove. It knows the truth and is bold in its preaching. It listens because there’s more than enough time for speaking and hearing. And it’s satisfied by choosing what ultimately matters, not in the vanishing comments of other people.
I lost the ability to prove myself to others this summer. Too many weaknesses, not enough strengths. But it doesn’t matter. In Christ, I have been proven before God. You will never find praise by looking for it. It will always loom out of reach, yet close enough to see the details. But if what Colossians 3:4, or Romans 8:17, or Philippians 1:21, or 2 Corinthians 12:10 says is true, than my glory is found in Christ’s. And my pride is the enemy to my own happiness.
I struggle with what to write in conclusion. Obviously my pride isn’t dead or gone, there are still moments when it peaks up and has to be brought down again. But I read passages like Philippians 2 or Matthew 18, and find something a little more practical now. I can read with a little more awareness into the idea of pride and humility. I can look at what Christ did in coming to earth with a little more awe. And, God willing, I can take a little more time to listen and invest in people without wondering if I can stack up in comparison to them.
Also, for my supporters, I would like you all to know that although this letter may lend credence to the opposite view, your support to me was not a waste. Although I initially presented my financial need as support for the project, I have come to see that you were also supporting me as a person. That is, this past summer, and the growth that occurred along with/because of it, would not have been possible without you. Before you knew of what would happen throughout the summer, you made God’s plan for me possible with your financial and prayerful support. Please know that I have not taken such a gift lightly, nor do I see its effects as lasting only for the summer. For what God has shown me this summer, you have truly invested in my life. Thank you all for what you have done for me!
*Also, if it is the case that it’s multiple life changing moments, is it really fair to say they can happen every year that I’ve been in America? Granted, in the amount of time that I’ve been living away from home, each summer has been a significant amount of time by sheer percentage, but when the other three seasons are all the time I have for things to normalize before the next summer’s experience, it’s hard to look back and validate that time as “normal,” instead of a slightly relaxed transition experience. In either case, a lot of personal transition happens from start to finish (whenever that is), so for practicality’s sake I don’t worry about it too much.
**Of course, no one, and especially not these men, can be properly characterized in one or two words. The summer saw all of us trade outwardly expressed character traits almost daily, just like regular people. Still, the majority of the time they were generally like what I’ve written above, which is good enough for me.
***My supporters will be happy to know that my own experience was not unfruitful. The first time I evangelized with a friend, we managed to explain the gospel well to a couple of people. I was able to pray over and for people and encourage people who were already believers, but the Lord never led me to see a person come to life in faith myself. Still, for my lack of personal stories, their support was truly a blessing for which I will always be deeply grateful.