Monday, March 16, 2020

Beach Reach 2020: "So Much Better Your Way"

This was spring break #7 for me, and each one has been used as a mission trip. I sometimes hear that we are “giving up our spring breaks” for ministry, but there is nothing I would rather do with it. This was my fourth spring break on Beach Reach, where we go to Panama City Beach to share the gospel with spring breakers—our peers—through running a van service, serving a pancake brunch, and hitting the streets of the city at night.

One might consider it laudable to spend every spring break on mission, but I know it’s a story of grace. I was continuously humbled by the thought of God using me in this capacity when I knew I’d be on the other side of it if He hadn’t taken hold on me. Who am I to be placed in this position? (More on that later.) I am also humbled by, and want to express my gratitude to, the BCM for allowing me on the trip and covering most of my costs, and to Living Church for covering the remaining costs.

This particular trip was preceded by a minor internal crisis. The other non-student leaders on the trip included a full-time associate campus minister, a house church pastor, a full-time pastor, and a full-time student pastor. Then there’s me, a third-year law student. Of the other leaders, one is in his 40s, one in his 30s, and two are in their late 20s. Then there’s me, the 24-year-old. I wondered what had possessed them to make me a leader when I seemed to be the odd one of the group. In reality, I knew that God doesn’t use us based on our status and he equips us for what He calls us to. I spent a lot of time in prayer (as I did generally for the trip) and talked to Seanna who made some good points as well.

While I didn’t need any certain status to validate me, it turned out that later that week I was asked to serve as the logistical coordinator for the trip, which is something I’m good with and enjoy, and it turned into a really cool role for the week.

As often happens on these trips, it was a slower start for me in terms of ministry. It left me wondering whether it was something wrong with me or bad luck, but those thoughts didn’t affect to the extent they did in the early part of last year. But a handful of good conversations came out of those nights.

The first night in the vans, I was driving and we had the opportunity to minister to a group of six girls. Several were Christians and we were able to encourage them in sharing the gospel with others they knew down there that week and pray over them. One revealed her grandfather had just been diagnosed with cancer. (It amazes me how open people are with us during our ministry time.)

The second night I was on the streets and our creativity and outgoingness opened up some conversations. The fun one was hanging out outside an ice cream parlor. I figured I’d check out the flavors but found it had just closed. I sat back down and called over to a table of people, asking them whether it was worth coming back later. Our conversation about ice cream eventually turned to a conversation about God.

Later that night I was called out to by someone in a minivan, a rapper and his manager asking me to buy a t-shirt. I bought his mixtape to have a conversation and was able to share about what we were doing down there and prayed for him. Later I was able to have a similar interaction with a random person walking by because I recognized the Kansas State logo on his shirt (thank you college sports).

Another thing I worked on early in the week was listening to God and speaking over people what He gave me. Another aspect of the ministry time (which runs 9 pm to 2 am, and often later) is that a quarter of the entire group (which had about a dozen groups from various campuses and ministries) is in the prayer room at any one time, praying for requests from people on the streets and spending time in God’s presence. It is some of our favorite times. For some in the group, receiving a word from God was a new thing, which it would have been at that stage of life for me as well. God used me to minister to several people in our group during those prayer times and pray over them.
There were definitely some odd moments during the week. My first night driving, I had someone vomit for the first time in my van while I was driving. It was not the only time. Thankfully, Sarah from our group had put together kits for such instances, so thanks to her because it worked well. My other night on the street, my group was outside Waffle House and were approached by a man who was clearly high, and eventually made the girl with us uncomfortable. When he approached a couple other people, offering to give them his pants, we took the opportunity to make a discreet exit. As we walked past the corner of Waffle House, there was a knock on the window, and when we looked over a girl in the corner booth flashed us. There was also the feeling that we were living in a bubble, because it was a normal Beach Reach but in the world around us there were schools and universities closing and shifting to online classes, stores facing stockouts, and coronavirus spreading around the world. We also realized that, since we were having contact with hundreds of people from around the country who were also having contact with hundreds of people from around the country, we were prime suspects to contract the virus ourselves.

I share these experiences to give a full picture of the things we encounter on Beach Reach, but know that the things God did make whatever weird things happen like nothing. And, honestly, my last two night of ministry were a lot of fun and we saw some crazy moves of God.

I had Sara, Wyatt, and Colt with me on Wednesday and we were on the streets for about six hours. Things were slow early on; we got into a handful of conversations that didn't go very far. I did have the opportunity to encourage another group we ran into who were also not having much luck. But even though there wasn't a lot happening, the group was a riot. We laughed and danced to music we’d hear and yelled greetings to people we’d pass. Wyatt kept yelling at motorcyclists to do a wheelie. The way we were dressed and had fun made us unsuspecting Beach Reachers and made us approachable.

At about 1:15 am, we knew we still had at least 45 minutes left. I had the group sit on the porch of a closed restaurant and was just honest with them about our tiredness. We walked about six miles that night over six hours, and it was late in the week. Some of us had spent more than two hours cooking for the group dinner we’d had earlier. But we all took turns praying, and I said something along the lines of, “God, we’re really physically and socially tired, but our time isn’t up, so please guide us. And it’s really hard to start conversations right now, so please bring us one if you want us to have one.”

We agreed that God was pointing us in the direction of a road that was a bit dark, but eventually led to a busier area. I was thinking we’d encounter someone in the deserted part and I could tell them God brought us to them, but we got to the busier area without seeing anyone. We walked past the ice cream parlor that was closed, then by Club LaVela. Club LaVela used to be the biggest club in Panama City Beach (and the country) and maybe the most popular spot. However, after Hurricane Michael the club has been closed the last two spring breaks.

As we were walking by LaVela, we spotted a man face-down on the ground. Someone from another group tried to talk to him, and he barely responded and said he was just sleeping. My group stayed, and when I tried to talk to him he didn’t respond. Wyatt flagged down a sheriff’s deputy, who woke him up and told him to find a ride. I started talking to the man, and learned he had been drinking with a friend and when he refused to get in the car since his friend was planning to drive, his friend left him. He decided to just lay down and pass out. He wasn’t too interested in talking right away; I asked if he needed a ride or had anything he wanted us to pray with him about, and he said no to both. I told him we’d be over within eyeshot waiting for our own ride (it was now after 2 am) if he ended up needing a van.

Providentially, there were delays in picking up the street teams. After standing there maybe five or ten minutes, the man called me over and asked if he could get a ride. I said that when we were picked up he could come with us and we’d drop him off. Then he began to open up about his life. He said he didn’t even know how he ended up “here,” speaking of his physical location and his spot in life. He repeated that several times. He had kids about our age, his marriage was in a bad spot, and while he drank it had never ended up like this.

I asked him if he had considered that Providence had brought him here so he could have this conversation with us. We believe God uses situations that aren’t ideal to bring people to Him and remind them that He pursues us in our messes, even if we create them. He told us he made a lot of money but it was completely meaningless. And maybe the most striking thing and one of the most seamless transitions to the gospel I’d heard, “You know, I believe in God, and I pray, but I am so lost.”

During our talk with him, I had explained the work that Jesus did, and I said, “There is nothing that has happened to you or that you had done…” My intent was to say, “…That Jesus didn’t already know when He went to the cross, and He went anyway.” Instead, he filled it in with, “…That he can’t forgive.” My response was, “…Yes.” Then I told him that the resurrection gives the power to have victory over those things. Once we were eventually in the vans (close to 3 am), Nick was also able to talk to him some. In four years, that was a pretty unique experience to me.

The last night was a whirlwind. I got our van together—consisting of Caleb, Paul, Emma, and Wyatt—at the beginning and started praying. We made the vow we’d made last year and should have made earlier in the week: no one leaves the van without hearing the gospel. Not holding them hostage, but on our end we had the determination to get there before they left. I’m praying and we haven’t even gone online yet when someone knocks on the window, asking for a ride. He had been left at the club by his friends and wanted to get back to his hotel. This made him open, and we quickly got to the gospel on what was a pretty long ride. He shared with us how he goes to church and would consider himself a believer but his life doesn’t show it. He was familiar with what Jesus has done but I was able to explain to him the purpose of the cross and the freedom that should come with a relationship with Him. We continued talking for a while after we got to his hotel, and I asked him if he wanted to settle that and surrender right there, and he said he did. I don’t know exactly where his heart is still, but I’ve been in contact with him and can hopefully continue that conversation.

The next group was two very drunk men who were rather crass in their conversation. When they got in the van, door man Paul had them sit next to him, because I would have thrown them out if they turned their attention to Emma. I knew we had a short ride and needed to cut through the noise. Emma boldly asked what they knew about the gospel. One mentioned a Bible verse he likes from Isaiah, “Here I am, send me.” I told him that’s why we were here, sent to them to carry God’s message.

After a couple conversations I was able to jump in, I was content to listen to the others. They absolutely went for it. Every single group that got in the van, I’d hear three people talking and explaining the same gospel in their own way. And this wasn’t just a monologue; they were answering questions and finding out where people were in their lives. I heard Paul explaining at one point that Jesus was either right, a liar, or a lunatic. We took one group to Waffle House and sat there 20 minutes continuing conversations. Then we took a group to a hotel and sat there 40 minutes continuing conversations. God gave favor in all of this in that no one told us to move. Four of the six at the hotel got out at some point but the other two kept talking. Then two more people approached me and asked for a ride, and I said they could hop on in and we’d leave once the others left. Wyatt, who had been left without anyone to talk to for a few minutes, immediately started talking to them. All of them are underclassmen, and I was so proud of them and so encouraged to hear their conversations.

It really amazed me to be in that place. Late on that last night I was telling Ashleigh that when I met her almost three years ago neither of us would have thought we’d be having a hand in this week. But even looking farther back, and I say it every year to the group, I know I’d be on the other side of this were it not for God’s grace. I was in tears the last night of worship with that idea weighing on me. Jesus changed our lives and we want to see that in others’ lives.

This song was not even played at Beach Reach, but it’s a good summary of what we see and how we respond:

Hallelujah, You have saved me
So much better Your way
Hallelujah, great Defender
So much better Your way

I saw people seeking satisfaction in alcohol, drugs, and sex, and thought, “So much better Your way.” I saw people searching for and not finding hope in fleeting things and thought, “So much better Your way.” I look at people around me seeking satisfaction in personal ambition, progressive ideals, social justice, alcohol, and temporary pleasures, and think, “So much better Your way.” I know that this could just as easily be me, and say, “So much better Your way.”

See, it’s not that we’re better. It’s not that we give up our spring breaks for mission trips. It’s not that we serve our peers. It’s not even that we look out for people that aren’t looking out or can’t look out for themselves. We aren’t saved by our works and they don’t suddenly become part of our identity after salvation. It’s all God, every step of the way, in every work done in His name, in every person that passes from death to life, in every life devoted to Him, throughout our lives and ringing through eternity. From Him are all things and to Him are all things, and everything was created for Him. Our lives point to Him, and all that we do is through Him and for Him and finds meaning in Him. And we carry His name to the people He sends us to.

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