“Welcome to the Intervarsity Regional Fall Conference!” Lars Ashford announced from the stage. JCF was part of an organization called Intervarsity, with chapters at colleges and universities across three nations. Six schools attended this conference, which began Friday night and ended Sunday afternoon, and Lars named each of the six, which was followed by cheers from those in attendance from each school. There seemed to be many more people here from Jeromeville than anywhere else, about as many as all the others combined. As I walked in, I was wondering why only our worship team was playing, and not anyone from the other schools, but now I assumed it was because our group was so much larger than the others.
A guy who introduced himself as being on staff with Intervarsity at Bidwell State gave a talk about hearing God’s voice in the middle of a busy world. He based his talk on the passage from the first book of Kings, in the Old Testament, when the prophet Elijah was hiding from those who wanted to kill him. Elijah heard the voice of God not in a heavy wind, an earthquake, or a fire, but a gentle whisper. That was what I needed; with how busy I was with classes, I needed to remember to listen to the gentle whispers of God.
After the talk, we sang a few more songs, and then people mingled around the room as others trickled out the door back to their rooms. I turned around and said hi to Eddie Baker, sitting behind me.
“Hey, Greg,” Eddie said. “How are you? This is your first time at Muddy Springs, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’d heard of this place before, because my dad grew up in Bidwell, but I’ve never actually been here before. I want to see what it looks like outside in the morning.”
“You’ll love it. Hey, I want to catch up, but I have to meet with the Kairos groups to talk about some stuff tonight. I’ll see you in the morning?”
“Sure,” I said. I did not know what Eddie’s meeting was about, or even what a Kairos group was. The word was completely unfamiliar to me. I saw Haley Channing a few rows away, talking to Kristina Kasparian. I walked up to them and said hi.
“Hey, Greg,” Kristina said.
“What’s up?” Haley asked.
“Nothing,” I replied. “This is my first time here. Just hanging out.”
“We were actually just on our way to a meeting,” Haley said. “We need to talk about stuff for Kairos. But I’ll talk to you tomorrow, okay?”
“Sure,” I said, faking a smile. Whatever this Kairos thing was, it involved a lot of my friends, and they had to meet in private. I walked around the room, looking for people who might not be meeting privately. Most of the people from the other schools seemed to be staying together, not mingling with the Jeromeville people.
Behind the back row of chairs, a group of people from Jeromeville stood around: Scott Madison, Amelia Dye, Brent Wang, Autumn Davies, a sophomore named James whom I had met a few times, and a few others. They were not with the Kairos people, so hopefully they were not about to leave.
“Hey, Greg,” Scott said. “James is teaching us a game. Want to play?”
“What kind of game?”
“It’s called Silent Football,” James said. “I was just about to explain it.”
The nine of us standing there sat in a circle cross-legged. James was barefoot, just as he had been on Sunday when I saw him at church, and also at JCF last week. Apparently this was a thing with him. I was curious why James was always barefoot, but it did not feel like it was my place to ask. As James explained the game, I realized quickly that it had little to do with actual football. There was an imaginary ball that we had to keep track of, and the person with the ball could pass it to different players by making certain hand gestures with weird funny names. Each gesture corresponded to passing the ball a certain number of players in a certain direction, or other things like that. If a player made an illegal move, like passing the ball when someone else actually had the ball, the game would stop. James, as the game leader, would give the offending player a penalty, which meant doing something silly and embarrassing.
James started with the imaginary ball. I carefully kept track of who had the ball, and when it came to me, I gestured to pass the ball to the player on the right, who was Autumn. Autumn then passed the ball further to the right, to Amelia. I was safe for now. Amelia gestured to pass back to the person who passed it to her, and Autumn did not respond. “Autumn,” James said. “You have the ball, and you didn’t pass it.”
“Huh?” Autumn replied. “I passed it to Amelia!”
“And I passed it back!” Amelia said.
“Exactly,” James continued. “Autumn, your penalty is that you have to act out a scene from a TV show or movie of your choice. Stand up.”
Autumn giggled and stood. She took a deep breath and giggled again, then she started screaming at random people. “No soup for you!” she said, pointing right at me. I knew, from overhearing people quote this, that Autumn was performing a scene from the TV show Seinfeld, but I had not seen the episode myself. I always thought that show was annoying.
Autumn sat back down, and we began another round. James passed the ball to a guy named Matt, who was not paying attention. “Matt,” James said. “You have the ball, and you did not pass it. For your penalty… I’ve heard you sing the really fast verse at the end of the song ‘Hook’ by Blues Traveler. So now, you will serenade us. Ready? Suck it in.”
“Suck it in, suck it in, suck it in, if you’re Rin Tin Tin, or Anne Boleyn,” Matt sang. He got a couple more lines into the song before he flubbed the lyrics and everyone started laughing. James started another round and passed the ball to me. I attempted to make the gesture to pass the ball back to whomever had it last, but I ended up flailing my arms in a way that was not exactly what I was supposed to do.
“Greg,” James said, mimicking my botched gesture. “What exactly does this mean?” Everyone laughed, as I just sat quietly, knowing that I was about to get a penalty. “You are a mathematics major, correct?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“And I have heard that you can recite pi from memory to three thousand decimal places.”
“Not quite that many,” I said, laughing. “Maybe sixty or so.”
“Well, then, let’s hear what you can do.”
I took a deep breath. “3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993751058209749445923… is that good?”
We continued playing a few more rounds of Silent Football. It was frustrating, and the whole purpose of the game was for the person leading the game to embarrass the others, but it was also strangely entertaining. I continued playing as long as everyone else did.
As I left the meeting hall, I noticed that the Kairos people were now in the lobby sitting around the fireplace talking; their meeting appeared to be over. Eddie, Kristina, Tabitha Sasaki, Sarah Winters, and Liz Williams were sitting around the couches. Ramon Quintero sat in a chair playing guitar, and Haley sat next to him, singing harmony. The two of them seemed completely engrossed in what they were doing, tuning out the rest of the world.
I went upstairs and went to bed, not even trying to talk to anyone. This was not supposed to happen. This Kairos thing felt like a clique of insiders, not letting anyone into their secret dealings. Some of my closest friends had felt more distant lately because of being in this Kairos group, and now one of them was moving in on Haley. Ramon and Liz were among the first friends I made in Jeromeville, and they had been a solid couple for almost two years until just a few months ago. Ramon was not supposed to be a threat to girls I was interested in, but now he was. I could not compete with Ramon, with his cool curly hair and all the musical instruments he played and languages he spoke. I went to bed feeling distraught, and did not fall asleep quickly.
After breakfast and another worship session, all of us at the retreat were given a worksheet with directions for a guided meditation and prayer. The first line said to find a quiet place outside, so I left the building, seeing the grounds of the retreat center in daylight for the first time. Muddy Springs was a two-hour car trip from Jeromeville, tucked into a canyon in the foothills ten miles north of Bidwell. It was named after a natural spring on this property; the indigenous inhabitants of this area used the mud from the springs for its supposed healing properties. In the early 1900s, some enterprising Americans capitalized on that legend and built a resort here, and in the 1960s, when their business had dried up, they sold the property to a group that turned it into a Christian conference center. Officially, it was now called Wellspring of Life Conference Center, but most people still called it Muddy Springs.
The dormitory that we stayed in was the original resort hotel, a towering brick building four stories high with two more floors below ground. People said that it reminded them of the hotel from The Shining, but I had not seen the movie or read the book, so I did not know. The land sloped downward behind the hotel, toward a creek, so that the lower floors had windows facing the back. Additional cabins were scattered around the property behind the hotel, along with basketball and tennis courts and a meeting hall detached from the hotel building, where we met last night. The surrounding hills were dotted with a mix of oak and pine trees, and covered in brown grass, since it had not started raining yet this winter. I sat on a low stone wall looking out toward the other side of the canyon.
I opened my Bible and tried to follow along with the instructions on the handout, but I was having trouble concentrating. The events of yesterday, being left out of the inner clique of the Kairos groups and wondering what was going on with Ramon and Haley, kept running through my mind. “God,” I said quietly but aloud, “I pray that I will focus on you and not get distracted. Not my will, but yours be done.” I sat there for the whole hour, trying to put my concerns aside and listen to what God was telling me, repeating to myself, “Not my will, but yours be done. I did not get any clear response from God.
I wandered back into the building and toward the dining hall when it was time for lunch. The people from the Kairos groups were all sitting together, and I did not try to break into their clique again. Instead I took my tray of chicken nuggets and French fries over to a group of three people I did not recognize. “Hi,” I said. “Can I sit here?”
“Sure,” a blonde girl said.
“What school are you guys from?”
“Great Basin State,” she replied. She continued talking to her friends, and none of them said another word for me. They got up and left after my lunch was about half finished. I finished eating, then just sat with my plate as the room gradually emptied.
Cheryl, one of the adults on JCF staff, saw me sitting alone and approached me. “Hey, Greg,” she said. “Are you okay? You’re sitting by yourself, not eating.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “I already ate, and my friends are all busy right now.”
“Do you have a few minutes? Can we go for a walk? I wanted to talk to you.”
I was not expecting this question. What could Cheryl be wanting to talk to me about? Was she going to ask me to be a part of something, like when Tabitha asked me to be the worship team’s roadie at the last retreat? Maybe she was going to invite me to this Kairos group thing, whatever it was? “Sure,” I said.
Cheryl and I walked out of the hotel downhill down the road. The weather was mild, with big puffy clouds in the sky, signaling the quick transition period every November where the weather turns abruptly from summer-like to winter-like. The first cold and rainy day of the winter would probably arrive in a week or so. “So how’s the weekend going for you?” Cheryl asked.
“Kind of disappointing, honestly,” I replied. “What exactly is a Kairos group?”
Cheryl looked like she was not expecting that question; apparently I was not going to get invited to a Kairos group. “It’s a new ministry we started last year, with six sophomores, and we’ve been gradually expanding it as more students grow through it. It’s a small group for training and discipling student leaders,” she explained. “‘Kairos’ means something like ‘the time something happens.’ It’s in the Greek for the passage where Jesus said, ‘The time has come, the kingdom of God is near.’ Mark 1:15.”
“How was it determined who gets to participate in Kairos groups?” I asked.
“When we were first starting this, at the beginning of last year, the staff picked six students who we thought we would be interested Then at the end of the year, they split into three pairs, to be the leaders for this year’s Kairos groups, and each pair selected four more sophomores and juniors to fill their group. So now we have three groups, and we’re going to do that again this year, so we’re hoping to have nine Kairos groups next year.”
“So the Kairos groups are just going to take over all of JCF?” I asked. “What happens when there aren’t enough people? If each group grows into three groups the following year, it’ll only be…” I did some math in my head, then continued a few seconds later. “In less than a decade, there won’t be enough students at Jeromeville to fill all those groups.”
“That’s why we need to pray that God will bring people to us, and we need to invite our friends and tell them about Jesus,” Cheryl replied.
I agreed conceptually with telling people about Jesus, and I knew that it was good to pray that people will come to JCF and get involved, but I also knew that Cheryl’s math was off. The Kairos group was not a sustainable model for ministry. But I did not expect my mathematical argument to convince Cheryl at the moment, and that was not my issue in the first place. “What happens to someone like me, then?” I said. “If you can only join a Kairos group as a sophomore or junior, will there be any groups left for seniors next year?”
“There will be a group for seniors. And for people who aren’t in Kairos groups.”.
“But even so, doesn’t it kind of send the wrong message that these Kairos groups are invitation only? Some of my friends, I’ve hardly gotten to see them on this retreat, because they’ve been doing stuff with their Kairos groups the whole time.”
Cheryl paused. “That’s kind of along the lines of what I wanted to talk to you about,” she said. “I’ve noticed that you seem to like to be the center of attention.”
This was definitely not what I expected to hear. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“Remember at Outreach Camp, when you grabbed the microphone?” Cheryl asked.
I did remember. During one of the worship sessions, the band said at the end of the session that they were going to stick around for some more informal worship music if people wanted to continue worshiping. I stayed, and at one point I felt like I wanted to sing, so I asked if I could have a microphone, and I sang lyrics that I had just made up, to the tune of the song they were already playing. I felt a little embarrassed afterward, that I had actually done such a thing, and I never spoke of that night again. “Yes,” I said.
“I think sometimes you’re too worried about what other people think. You’re thinking about what you want, not what God wants for you.”
I processed this as we continued walking downhill. “I’m a shy introvert,” I explained. “I’m not really the kind of person who naturally wants to be the center of attention. But I think you’re right. Sometimes I am paying more attention to what I want instead of what God wants.”
“And you told me you’re worried about your friends in Kairos groups leaving you out. They’re still your friends. You aren’t worth less because you’re not in a Kairos group.
“Yeah, but that’s not what it feels like.”
We turned around and walked back uphill, toward the hotel. “What if we had some kind of sign?” Cheryl asked. “If I think you need to step back, focus on God, and not be in the spotlight, I’ll just look at you and tap my ear.” Cheryl demonstrated, moving her right hand to her ear and tapping the top of it. “I don’t have to call you out. It’ll just be our little thing.”
“I guess,” I said. I still did not think that I was a habitual attention hog by nature. But, on the other hand, Cheryl had a point; I definitely did have some of these tendencies when I was in the right situation with the right crowd. And focusing on God and not the self is always something that is naturally difficult for most people. “But I still think it’s wrong to have the Kairos groups if they’re going to be exclusive like that,” I continued
“Just because no one picked you for a Kairos group doesn’t mean God doesn’t have a place for you. Keep praying, and God will show you how you can serve him.”
“Then why even have Kairos groups in the first place? You tell me not to be the center of attention, but the people in these groups, they get to be part of some exclusive club.”
“I don’t think anyone else sees it that way,” Cheryl explained. “But I’ll bring that up in our staff meeting, to make sure we don’t turn it into something like that.”
“Thank you,” I replied. I could see that I was not going to bring down the entire Kairos ministry, much less become one of the cool kids and make Haley want to go out with me, just from this one conversation with Cheryl. But I voiced my concerns, and I learned something about the way people see me that I needed to work on.
Cheryl and I returned to the hotel after spending the rest of the walk just talking about life and classes. When we returned, I found some people behind the hotel playing a game of Ultimate Frisbee. They were playing on a paved surface, given the lack of flat grass on the grounds, so I had to be a little careful, but it was fun and I did not fall down.
Later, at dinner time, I walked down to the dining hall. The people from the Kairos groups were still sitting together, and I still felt frustrated enough at the situation that I did not bother to ask if I could join them. I found a group of three freshman girls from Jeromeville with an empty seat next to them; maybe they would be more friendly than the Great Basin State students, since we had seen each other before. “May I join you?” I asked.
One of them, I thought her name was Carrie, looked up at me and smiled. She was somewhat taller than average, the tallest of the three but still at least six inches shorter than me, with straight medium-brown hair and dark brown eyes. “Sure!” she said. “Greg, is it?”
“Yeah. And you’re Carrie?” Then, to the girl on Carrie’s left, I said, “And you’re Angie? And I don’t remember your name,” I said to the third one, who then introduced herself as Susan.
“How’s your weekend going?” Carrie asked me.
“It’s okay,” I replied. “I’ve had some frustrating stuff happen lately, but I think God is teaching me something through it.”
“God does that,” Angie said.
“Yes he does,” I replied. “How’s yours?”
“It’s great!” Carrie said. “This place is so beautiful! We went for a walk this morning down to the creek during the quiet time. It was so nice.”
“Yeah,” Susan added.
“That’s good,” I said. “I’ve never been here specifically, but I’ve been to Bidwell many times, because I have relatives there. This part of the state is so beautiful.”
“That’s cool,” Carrie said.
I did get to talk to my friends from the Kairos groups a little bit that weekend, since they were not meeting together that night. It was mostly small talk, but it was better than nothing. Other than my clique-related frustration, the weekend was good overall. It was nice being away from Jeromeville for a couple days. Silent Football was fun and silly, and I made friends with some freshman girls, one of whom I am still friends with today.
Cheryl only had to use the ear-tapping thing twice for the remaining years that I was involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. The incident she mentioned was not my normal behavior, but it was true that JCF should not primarily be a social club. I was here to grow closer to God among friends as we encouraged each other’s spiritual growth. Being social with Christian friends is not inherently bad, but it should not be the goal in itself. God would lead me to a place where I could serve him, even if it did not involve a flashy attention-getting position. He already opened the door for me to be the worship team’s roadie this year.
A few months later, God led me to a new place to serve. He opened this door when I was not looking for it, and this ministry was not part of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. But that is another story for another time. Even though the Kairos groups were cliquish, I did stay friends with those people. Being cliquish is part of sinful human nature. And in the fall of 1998, when I heard that JCF was dropping their Kairos ministry completely, it felt like a victory.
What are some stories you guys have about being left out of cliques?
Also, I never knew what the actual lyric was after “Rin Tin Tin” until I looked it up while writing this episode. It always sounded like “rambling” to me. I’ve been singing those words wrong for a quarter-century. And I really did type pi from memory when I wrote this.