February 14-16, 1998. Where are you going? (#163)

I turned into the parking lot for the camp, exhausted.  This trip up the mountain had taken about two hours longer than it would have taken in good weather.  A few feet of snow blanketed the ground, but the parking lot had been plowed, and it was no longer snowing.  Much of the snow from the parking lot had been piled in one spot, a little ways away from the entrance to the lodge.  I found that somewhat odd, but I thought nothing of it since I had not had much experience with snow in my lifetime.  I parked and went inside.

A student named Samantha Willis was the first one to see me.  “Greg!” she said.  “Where have you been all day?”

“I just got here,” I said.  “I had to take a test.”

“On a Saturday?”

“Yes.  It’s the test to get into the teacher training program.  It’s given all over the state, but the testing dates are always Saturdays so it doesn’t conflict with anyone’s classes.”

“Greg!” I heard Taylor’s voice from the next room.  He walked to where I was and continued, “Glad you made it.”

“It was crazy getting up here!  I guess they were only letting one car up the mountain at a time.  Is that so there aren’t as many cars on the road in the snow?”

“I think so.  Erica and the other kids who stayed back are outside, playing in the snow.  Or you can hang out here inside.  You can put your bags over there.”

“I’m gonna go outside for a bit, then I’ll come back in later.”  I put my bags where Taylor pointed, then walked outside.  About ten kids were out there with Erica Foster, who was helping a girl onto a sled as her younger brother Danny, one of the students, playfully dumped snow on her head.  Erica pushed the girl down a gently sloping hill as the others built snowmen and threw snowballs. Around thirty kids came to this camp; today was the day for skiing and snowboarding, and the rest of the kids and leaders were doing that at a resort about twenty miles away.

I would have enjoyed coming to something like this when I was of middle school age.  This camp was part of The Edge, the youth group at Jeromeville Covenant Church, and I knew that not all of the kids who came to youth events came from families at the church.  Some came from small churches with no youth groups, and some got invited by friends at school.  For some of these students, this youth group is the first they really hear about Jesus.

One of the snowballs flying across the grounds came right at me, and I jumped aside just in time.  “Hey!” I shouted at Shawna Foreman; I could tell from her arm position, and the way she was giggling, that she had thrown it.

“Did you just get here or something?” Shawna asked.

“Yes,” I said, explaining to her about the test.

I wandered over to the hill and tried sledding a few times.  Each time, the same thing happened: about halfway down the hill, the combination of my large size and the sled’s small size caused me to fall off the sled on my back.  I was not going fast enough to be hurt, though.  It was fun.

About an hour after I arrived, I had returned to the lodge to dry off, and I heard cars outside, then voices and footsteps. The skiing and snowboarding group had returned. My brain was wrapping around the significance of the numbers for the first time.  The majority of these students knew how to either ski or ride a snowboard, and most of those were experienced enough, and from wealthy enough families, that they brought their own equipment.  This was very different from where I grew up; Plumdale was a much more blue-collar community than Jeromeville, and a bit farther from anywhere with snow in the winter.

“What did they do?” Martin Rhodes asked as he walked in with the students.  “They plowed the parking lot while we were gone, and they piled all the snow on top of my car!”

“Wait!” I said, remembering what I had seen in the parking lot when I arrived.  “That pile of snow in the parking lot?  That’s your car under there?”

“Yes!” Martin replied.  “How am I supposed to get out?  Oh, hey, Greg.  You made it.”

“Yes.  But it took forever.  They were only letting one car up the mountain at a time, so we all had to take the off-ramp at Apple Canyon, stop at the stop sign, and get back on.  It took almost two hours to get from Blue Oaks to Apple Canyon.”

“Two hours?” Adam White, the youth pastor, said; he had walked up as I was talking to Martin.  “That’s only eight miles!  So you averaged four miles per hour?”

“Pretty much,” I said.  I noted in my mind that that was such a typical Adam comment.  Although he had a degree in psychology, I heard someone else at the church once describe Adam as a math guy who just didn’t study math, and as a mathematics major myself, I would definitely agree that Adam had a mathematical brain.

We had dinner about half an hour after everyone returned from the ski resort, then we gathered in the main room for Bible study.  The Bible study was led by a guy named Jonathan, not someone from our church; he was a youth pastor from a church in a different part of the state who had this side gig speaking at youth camps.  The theme for this camp was “Where Are You Going?”; a large banner with this title on it hung on the wall behind where Jonathan stood to teach.  That evening’s session was about Jesus calling the first disciples; they were fishermen, but Jesus said he would make them fishers of men.  He gave their lives a new direction.

Adam got up in front of everyone after Jonathan finished.  “Today is Valentine’s Day, as you know, and you might have noticed, on the walls here, there are hearts with each of your names on it.  For the next fifteen minutes, we are going to go around and write Valentines to each other.  Sign as many people’s hearts as you can.  Write encouraging notes to each other.  Say something nice.  Tell people what you like about them.  But keep it appropriate.”

This kind of activity made me both excited and nervous.  I was very interested in what others would say to me, but I was nervous to be honest with others, because I did not want anything I said to be taken the wrong way.  I wrote to several of the kids I knew well how much I enjoyed seeing them at youth group every week.  I added slightly more personal messages for a few of them, like the ones who helped me with my Dog Crap and Vince movie a few months ago.  I also wrote to all of the leaders: Adam, Noah, Taylor, Martin, Erica, Courtney, Brody, Marlene, and Robert A. Silver III, who went by the nickname 3.  To each of them, I wrote something along the lines of how I enjoyed having gotten to know them over the last year.  For Taylor, I added something about having been friends since Day 1 of freshman year, and about having gone to In-N-Out Burger on the day it opened.

“Okay, now,” Adam announced after a while.  “You can go look at your own Valentine and see what people wrote to you.”  I walked over to mine, half expecting it to be mostly empty, and was pleasantly surprised to see that it was not.  About twenty kids had written messages to me, some of them just saying things like “hi,” but a few of them meaningfully expressing appreciation for my presence on the youth leadership, and reminiscing some of the fun memories of the last year.  All of the leaders had also written on my Valentine.  Abby, whom I had known since sophomore year and who was engaged to my housemate Josh, wrote:

Greg – I’m so glad you’ve gotten involved with The Edge! You’re great around these kids.  God has really given you a heart for youth, and it’s been good to see you discover that. You’ll make a great teacher too!  Your sister in Christ, Abby

In a corner of the Valentine was an unsigned message in Josh’s handwriting.  He had drawn a small dog with a speech bubble next to it, as if the dog were speaking, and inside the speech bubble he had written a quote from a well-known television commercial that I often laughed at and quoted around the house:

“Yo quiero Taco Bell”

I laughed at this.  It was silly, but having an inside joke of sorts is a way to know that someone really knows me and pays attention to me.  I really did feel appreciated tonight.

“Hey,” I said walking up to Abby and Josh.  “‘Yo quiero Taco Bell.’  That was funny.  And, Abby, thank you for your kind words.”

“I meant it.  You really are going to be a great teacher.”

“You are,” agreed Josh, who was currently in the teacher training program, to teach science.

“Thanks,” I said.

We sang worship songs and had another Bible study with Jonathan on Sunday morning.  He spoke about John 14, where Jesus tells Thomas, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  Thomas did not know where he was going, but following Jesus was the way, just as it is for us.

After lunch, we had the afternoon to play in the snow, or hang out in the lodge.  I hung out in the lodge for a while, then went outside.  Danny Foster, Zac Santoro, and two other boys appeared to be making a snowman, but as I walked closer to them, I realized that the object they were shaping out of snow was not a snowman.

“Hey, Greg,” Zac said.

“Wait,” I replied.  “Is that–”

“A snow toilet!” Danny exclaimed.

“I have to remember this,” I said.  I pulled out my camera and took a picture of the snow toilet, with the boys posed around it.  A couple minutes later, Danny tried to sit on the snow toilet, and it collapsed.

“Oh, no,” Zac said.

“Can you rebuild it?” I asked.

“Let’s go!” Danny exclaimed, attempting to repair the snow toilet.

I walked a little farther from the lodge.  Courtney, Brody, Marlene, and 3 had engaged several students in a playful snowball fight.  Others were riding sleds and innertubes down the hill.  Playing in the snow was so much fun.  This was only the fourth time in my life that I had ever touched snow, since I grew up somewhere where it did not snow, and my family had no concept of fun family vacations or outdoor recreation.  Almost all of our family vacations consisted of driving long distances to visit relatives, where my brother and I had to sit still as the adults talked about boring adult things.  Although I sometimes lamented all of the experiences I missed out on in childhood, it was kind of nice to still be able to enjoy simple things that were new to me, like playing in the snow.

After dinner, and another Bible message from Jonathan, someone suggested playing a giant game of Mafia.  I had learned this game recently from one of the other Edge leaders, and we had taught it to some of the kids.  Mafia was a social deduction game that inspired many other similar games over the years, including the 21st-century Ultimate Werewolf card games and Among Us smartphone game.  A master of ceremonies would secretly give each player a role by drawing cards.  Two players were the Mafia.  Each round, all the players would close their eyes, and the two Mafia would open their eyes and silently decide on someone to eliminate.  Another player, the Doctor, had to guess whom the Mafia would eliminate, and if correct, the player would be revived and not leave the game.  A fourth player, the Detective, made one guess each round as to who the Mafia was, and the master of ceremonies would silently answer yes or no.  Then, everyone would open their eyes and discuss the results, eventually voting on one suspect to eliminate.  If both Mafia members were eliminated, the citizens would win; otherwise the Mafia would win.

Almost everyone from our group decided to play. I had never played with a crowd this big; the game could take a while if the Mafia were not flushed out quickly. Brody was the MC; he dealt cards to determine roles, and I was the detective.  “Close your eyes,” I heard Brody say.  While my eyes were closed, I heard him ask the Mafia to open their eyes and choose a victim, then he asked the Doctor for a player to revive.  Continuing, he said, “Detective, open your eyes.”  I looked up at Brody, and he said, “Point to a player to find out if they are Mafia.”  I pointed at Erica Foster, just because it would be hilarious if the sweet, innocent leader was Mafia.  Brody’s eyes widened, and he shook his head yes.  Perfect.  I guessed one right on the first try.  I did not want to be too obvious during the discussion, though, because that would put a target on myself.

 “Wake up,” Brody announced.  “Adam.  You mysteriously crashed into a tree while snowboarding.  They did a good job of making it look like an accident.”

“Aww, come on, really?  First one out?” Adam said.  I mostly kept quiet during the ensuing discussion.  The group voted to eliminate Zac Santoro.

“Zac was not Mafia,” Brody announced.  “Everyone close your eyes.”

I waited until it was my turn to open my eyes as the Detective.  I pointed at Shawna Foreman, still remembering the afternoon before when she threw the snowball at me.  Brody nodded in the affirmative, with an even more surprised look on his face.  Thirty-five people were playing, not including myself, and I had picked out the two Mafia on my first two guesses.  After I closed my eyes, I was distracted from the discussion because I was trying to work out the probability that I would choose correctly on my first two guesses.  The number of combinations of 2 out of a group of 35, that would be 35 times 34, divided by 2… which simplified to 35 times 17.  I knew 35 times 10 was 350. Then add 35 times 7, which would be, umm, 5 times 7 and 30 times 7.  So, 35 plus 210, or 245, and 350 plus 245 was 595.  So the probability of picking out the Mafia on the first two tries was 1 in 595, or less than 0.2 percent.  As I was doing the math, not paying attention to the discussion, I heard that Erica Foster was eliminated.  Perfect. One of the Mafia gone already, without me having to look suspicious as the Detective.  Maybe this would be a quick game after all.

It was not a quick game.

On the next round, when it was my turn to guess, I did not need to do anything, since I already knew who the two Mafia were.  Brody had to ask for my guess, though, because the other players did not know that I knew.  I pointed at Brody; he silently laughed while shaking his head no.  On the fourth round, I pointed at myself, also obviously not Mafia.

Brody began telling more and more gruesome stories about how the people died. “Samantha, you were found decapitated in the town square.  3, you were ripped apart by wild dogs.”  Danny Foster started a campaign to get me eliminated after the Mafia took out 3, and just like that, I was out.  I had information as the detective, and I never got a chance to use it.

One by one, Shawna, as the Mafia, continued eliminating all of the players, drawing no suspicion to herself.  And one by one, the townspeople continued eliminating everyone but Shawna, drawing a collective gasp every time Brody announced that the eliminated suspect was not Mafia.  Finally, the game was down to just one leader and two students: Taylor, Shawna, and Stanley Houston, one of the boys who had built the snow toilet.  Shawna was trying to convince Stanley that Taylor was the Mafia.  In desperation, Taylor said, “This is our last chance to get this right.  If we pick the wrong person this time, then the Mafia will win, because the last townsperson will be dead after the next round.  So here goes: I’m the detective.  And Shawna is Mafia.”

“He’s lying!” Shawna replied.  “I’m the detective, and Taylor is Mafia!”  I knew they were both lying, but it was interesting to see how desperation had inspired this bold move.  When it came time to vote, everyone held their breath and looked at Stanley, since they knew Shawna and Taylor would be voting for each other.  Stanley pointed at Shawna.

“Shawna is Mafia!” Brody exclaimed.  Everyone except Erica and Shawna erupted into cheers.  The townspeople finally won the game, after the Mafia had taken out all of them except two.  We won at the last possible chance.

We had one last “Where Are You Going?” Bible study on Monday morning. We chose this weekend for Winter Camp because today was Presidents’ Day, a federal holiday, so there was no school even though it was Monday. The Bible study was about the beginning of Acts, when Jesus appeared to his disciples forty days after his resurrection.  He told them, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Now they knew where they were going: far away to carry the Gospel to other lands.

After this, we packed up and headed home.  Since I had arrived late, no one was assigned to my car, but Zac and Danny asked if they could ride home with me.  I was fine with it; those two were a lot of fun.

In addition to our Valentines, we each got to keep two other things from the weekend.  One was an annual tradition for Winter Camp with The Edge: a mixtape with ninety minutes of Christian music of all different genres.  There were songs from some bands I was familiar with, like Jars of Clay, Five Iron Frenzy, DC Talk, and the children’s video series VeggieTales, of which I had seen two episodes.  Many artists on Edge Mix ‘98 were new to me.  Track 3 was called “What Would Jesus Do,” by a band called Big Tent Revival.

“What would Jesus do?” I said as the singer sang the same phrase, holding up my left wrist.  The other gift we all received that weekend was around my wrist, an embroidered bracelet with the letters “W.W.J.D.?,” which stood for this phrase.  These bracelets had recently become trendy among Christians, especially in youth and young adult groups, but some Christian celebrities and athletes had been seen wearing the bracelets too.

Zac and Danny fell asleep within the first half hour of the trip home, but I kept the music playing. Several tracks deep into side 2 of the mixtape, a song came on that kept asking in the chorus, “What’s your direction?”  This song seemed appropriate for a weekend with the “Where are you going?” theme.  I did not recognize the voice, so when it was safe to do so, I looked at the liner notes.  There was no song called “What’s Your Direction,” or any other phrase repeated in the song, but I analyzed the song list and discovered that this song was the oddly-titled “Ode to Chin,” by a band called Switchfoot.

In addition to being only my fourth time seeing snow, that weekend also held the distinction of being the first time I had ever heard Switchfoot.  They had another good song on Edge Mix 2001, but their major turning point in my consciousness would come in 2003, when they released the album The Beautiful Letdown.  This album was a crossover hit, one of the most successful Christian albums of all time, eventually going on to sell three million copies and spawn two mainstream top twenty hits.  Switchfoot’s music stayed true to Christian principles, but they presented these principles lyrically in a philosophical manner, without sounding preachy, gaining them fans outside the church as well.  They have been one of my favorite bands since my late 20s.

I would learn years later that Ode to Chin, as well as the album it came from, The Legend of Chin, were named after a childhood friend of the two brothers who founded Switchfoot.  I liked that song.  It made me think.  What was my direction?  Where was my life going?  I was going to be a teacher, I had that at least, but life still had many unanswered questions, and I would probably spend the rest of my life seeking the will and heart of God to figure those things out.

Readers: Does it snow where you live? Have you ever been to a winter camp? Tell me about it!

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December 27-31, 1996. You are my witnesses. (#113)

Previously on Don’t Let The Days Go By, Greg was traveling to Urbana, Illinois for a Christian student convention to learn about missions and service opportunities. Read the previous episode here.

“Hi,” Matt, the small group leader, said to the remaining guys in the group who were just entering the room.  Matt had long wavy brown hair down to his shoulders and wore a long sleeved button shirt and jeans.  “Glad you found us.  Our room smelled of smoke really bad, so Obadiah here offered to let us meet in his room.  We’re all here, so we can get started now.  My name is Matt, and I’m a senior at Michigan State, majoring in religious studies.”

“I’m Greg,” I said.  “I’m a junior, a mathematics major at the University of Jeromeville.”  Most of the others did not know where Jeromeville was, so I told them.  This small group had eight other guys in it besides me, one from Canada and seven from various parts of the United States, none of which were out west near me.  Matt, the leader, also led a small group at Michigan State’s chapter of Intervarsity.  He pointed out that I had traveled the farthest to get to Urbana.  “Did a lot of people from Jeromeville come to Urbana?” he asked.

I thought for a minute.  “Probably around thirty,” I said.  “It’s a big school with a big Intervarsity chapter, and there are churches with college groups too.”

“Wow,” said the guy named Obadiah, who was from Oklahoma.  “I’m the only one here from my school.  But I go to a small Bible college with only three hundred students, and we don’t have an Intervarsity chapter.  I found out about Urbana from my church.”

After two and a half years at the University of Jeromeville, with twenty-five thousand students, I could not picture what life at a school that small would be like.  The others introduced themselves, with half of them having come from public schools like me and the other half from private schools.

“So what did we learn about being a witness from the session tonight?” Matt asked.  Some of the others shared their thoughts.  One guy whose name was also Matt mentioned giving our lives for Jesus, and another guy, Pablo, pointed out that we are all witnesses all the time, because the rest of the world sees how we act as Christians.  I had never really thought of it that way, but he was right.  The theme for this year’s Urbana conference was “You Are My Witnesses,” taken from God’s words to the people of Israel in Isaiah 43:10, and echoed by Jesus in Acts 1:8 when he tells the disciples that they will be his witnesses, just before he is taken up to heaven.  The first general session had been earlier this evening, just before this small group, and a number of speakers had discussed this concept of witness.

After this, we spent some time praying with each other.  Matt, the leader with the long hair, asked us each in turn how we could pray for each other.  When it was my turn, I said, “Pray that I will hear what God has for my life.  I’m a fairly new Christian, and I don’t really know a lot about missions, but a lot of my friends have done mission trips, and I want to know what’s out there, and what God has for me.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re here,” Matt said.  “I think God definitely has something to show you.”

 We each took turns praying for someone else, then we dispersed to our rooms.  Long-Haired Matt and Pablo were my roommates; I slept in the top bunk, Matt on the bottom, and Pablo on a cot that had been placed in the room specifically for this convention.  As Matt had said earlier, our room smelled horribly of smoke, and with my normal difficulty sleeping in unfamiliar places, I hoped that the smell would not keep me awake.

Intervarsity was a nondenominational Christian organization with chapters at colleges and universities throughout North America.  Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, which I had begun attending at the beginning of sophomore year, was a chapter of Intervarsity.  Every three years, during the week after Christmas, the organization held this convention, named after its location in Urbana, Illinois.  I had never traveled this far east before, nor had I ever seen this much snow.

The University of Illinois campus hosted the convention.  Attendees slept in dormitories that were normally occupied by students, who were home for winter break during the convention.  Normally these rooms held two students, but cots had been added for this convention so that three of us could share each room.  I was glad I had not been assigned to the cot.  Apparently the residents of this room were smokers.  The Illinois students did not have to move their things out during their break.  The other Matt in my small group had mentioned that his room’s walls were full of bikini model posters, so he asked for leftover Urbana posters to cover them up.  The organizers of the convention had extra posters available; apparently this was a common occurrence.

Each day of the convention began with a small group Bible study, with the same eight other guys that I had met with last night.  Following this was a two hour general session with worship music and speakers, ending at noon.  Dozens of smaller sessions filled each afternoon, with attendees free to choose which sessions to attend, and representatives from ministry and service organizations, as well as Bible colleges and seminaries, filled three exhibit halls.  Another general session met each night after dinner, with prayer time in our small groups before bed.

On the second morning, December 28, I saw Long-Haired Matt, the other Matt, and Obadiah talking in the dorm as they prepared to leave for the general session.  I asked if I could walk over with them.  The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign was a very large campus, spread out along the border of two adjacent cities.  Many of the buildings appeared older than those of UJ back home.  The buildings were arranged more densely than those of UJ, for the most part.  The general session was held in the basketball arena, and I had to walk past the football stadium to get there.  Both of them were much larger than the corresponding facilities at UJ, which did not surprise me since Illinois was a Division I school.

The general session began with a worship band playing on a stage where the basketball court normally was.  Some of the songs were familiar to me, the same songs that we sang at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and at church.  After the music, speakers came up to talk about various aspects of missions and being a witness.  The keynote speaker that morning was an older woman named Elisabeth Elliot.  She told a story about she and her husband, Jim, serving as missionaries in a remote part of South America in the 1950s.  They tried to establish contact with an indigenous group so they could live with them and teach them the good news about Jesus dying for our sins.  Jim and four other members of their group were killed by the people they were trying to reach, but Elisabeth later returned to live with those people for several years.  As one new to evangelical Christian missionary culture, I had never heard anything like that; Ms. Elliot’s story was both inspiring and intense.  I overheard Long-Haired Matt and Obadiah talking after the session; apparently the Elliots’ story was well-known among those who grew up going to churches that emphasized world missions.

I spent the afternoon in a session about keeping a prayer journal.  The speaker, an Intervarsity staff leader from some other school, had a lot of good things to say, but I also came out of the session feeling a bit like a failure.  My prayer times tended to be unproductive, and I did not hear God’s voice audibly.  The speaker also cautioned against having an experience orientation, in which one’s faith and prayer life is focused on results instead of the mere presence of God.  I knew that this was something I struggled with.  That evening, I could not find either of the Matts or Obadiah or Pablo or any of the others in my group when the time for the general session came, so I sat alone.

By lunch time on December 29, I was feeling two things: discouraged and cold.  We had a good small group last night, though.  Multiple people prayed that I would get out of this rut of discouragement, but it had not happened yet.  Long-Haired Matt reminded me about the guest services booth where I could look up dorm room phone numbers for other attendees.  I made a note to look up Brian Burr, Eddie Baker, and Taylor Santiago later that day, so I could at least see them at some point during this convention.

As I left the cafeteria and headed across campus for a session about forgiveness, I realized that something looked different.  The snow was melting.  The blanket of white that had covered the campus when I arrived two days ago had receded to little patches of snow scattered across the greens and browns of nature and the grays of paved surfaces.  The air also felt noticeably warmer this afternoon.

“Greg!” I heard someone call out as I approached the building where my session was.  It was a female voice, not any of the guys in my small group.  I turned and saw a girl with light brown hair in a white sweatshirt, smiling and waving to me.

“Autumn!” I called out excitedly.  Autumn Davies was a sophomore at Jeromeville, who stayed in the same hotel as me on the night before Urbana began.  She gave me a hug.

“How are you?” Autumn asked.  “How have you been?”

“Okay, I guess.  Just trying to figure out what God is telling me through all this.”

“You’ll figure it out.  Just keep listening.”

“Yeah.  How has Urbana been for you?”

“It’s been great!  I’m learning so much!  I want to go on a mission trip this summer.”

“Awesome!  Keep me posted on that.”

“Hey, do you want to come sit with us at the session tonight?  Some of us from Jeromeville decided to sit together, and we’ve gradually been finding other people we know.”

“Yeah!  Definitely!  You’re actually the first person from Jeromeville I’ve seen since we got off the bus.”

“Wow!  We’ve been sitting in section 205.”

“I need to get to this session, but it was great to see you!  I’ll see you tonight!”


My Urbana experience seemed to change from the moment the snow melted.  A couple hours after I ran into Autumn, I saw Tabitha Sasaki and Melinda Schmidt walking toward a different session.  And when I arrived in section 205 that night, it felt like coming home, being surrounded by familiar faces.  Dave and Janet McAllen, Cheryl, and Brian, our campus staff.  Eddie, Autumn, Leah, Tabitha, Leslie, Alyssa, Scott and Amelia, Melinda, Ajeet, Mike Knepper, and many of the other friends I made at JCF last year.  Taylor, Pete, Sarah, Liz, and Ramon, friends from my freshman dorm who invited me to JCF in the first place.  I had told Long-Haired Matt at dinner earlier that I found some of my Jeromeville friends and would probably sit with them instead of my small group; he seemed to approve of this idea.

“Greg!” Taylor said when he saw me approach their section.  “Good to see you!”

“You too!” I said.  “I ran into Autumn earlier, and she told me where everyone would be.”

“So what have you thought of everything so far?  Are you ready to pack up and go on a mission trip this summer?” Taylor chuckled.

“It’s definitely been a learning experience.  I was thinking earlier today, I should probably start with something smaller.  Like maybe I could be a Bible study leader next year.”

“Oh yeah?  That’s a good thought.  If you’re interested in that, talk to Dave and Janet.  And talk to your Bible study leader this year, so you know what you’re getting yourself into.  Who is that?”

“Evan Lundgren.”

“He’s not at Urbana, is he?”

“No.  But I’ll talk to him when we get back.”

“Good idea.  I’m going to be taking a quarter off in the spring to do inner-city missions this spring and summer, so I’ve been looking for stuff that’ll help with that.”

“That’s cool.  Keep me posted about that.”

Although I possibly had the beginnings of a plan, I still felt a lot that was unresolved within me.  I did not have a specific plan like Taylor.  So much here seemed to be pushing the idea of going to serve God in other countries, and I just did not feel ready for that.  I knew that not everyone was called to missions overseas, but what if I was just being lazy and staying in my comfort zone instead of actually doing God’s will for my life?

For the remaining two days of Urbana, I followed the same pattern of sitting with Long-Haired Matt and my small group in the morning session and with my Jeromeville friends in the evening.  Although I enjoyed seeing my friends at the evening sessions, I was haunted by the words of the speaker from earlier in the week who reminded me not to have an experience-oriented faith.  It was difficult to find the balance of having friends to encourage me in my faith, and for me to encourage in theirs, yet also remembering that my faith is deeper than just experiences with friends.

 By the final evening, the smell of smoke from my dorm room had permeated all of my clothes and the towel I was using to dry myself after showering.  I hoped that the smell did not bother my friends, and I hoped that people I came across would not assume that I was a smoker.  That would not be a good witness to others.

According to the program, one of tonight’s topics was about “sending,” presented by one of the people in charge of Intervarsity.  I was not sure what this word meant exactly.  “You’ve probably learned a lot about Urbana about missions,” the speaker said.  “But it is just as important to know that someone back home is sending these people on missions.”  He went on to explain the importance of the teams who give financially to missionaries and pray for them, how they are a crucial part of the missions experience.  I liked that.

The final evening session was scheduled to end two and a half hours later than on the other nights.  It was December 31, and we would all take communion together at midnight to celebrate the New Year.  After the last speaker, the band came back and played an extended worship session.  They began with a song called “Good To Me,” a song that I had heard many times back home, but which was still just as true.  God really was good to me.

Around 11:45, hundreds of volunteers spread out throughout the arena to distribute crackers and grape juice for communion.  The people on stage told the story of the Last Supper and instructed us to eat the bread and drink the juice in memory of Jesus.  I sat reflecting on everything that had happened this week as the worship team played music with no vocals.  The burden I had been feeling, wanting to make sure I was doing enough to serve God, was lifting now that I had heard the talk about sending.  Suddenly it felt okay if I was not ready to cross any oceans this summer.  I could still make donations and pray for my friends who would be crossing oceans, and that was still an important part of the cause of world missions.  And I was planning to learn more about leading a small group next year.

I looked at my watch after a while; It was 12:02.  The date displayed on my watch said “1-1-97.”  January 1, 1997.  A new year, full of new opportunities and possibilities.

After the worship team dismissed us from the session, I stood up and looked around at my friends sitting nearby.  Eddie made eye contact with me; he walked over and patted me on the back.  “Happy New Year, Greg,” he said.

“You too,” I replied.  “By the way, you were wrong when you said a couple weeks ago that Urbana was so big that we probably wouldn’t see each other.”

“I know.  I guess I was.”

“No offense, but in this case I’m glad you were wrong.” I smiled.

“Me too,” Eddie replied.  “So what did you think of tonight?”  I told him of my realization about sending, that it did not make me any less of a Christian if I did not go on a mission trip right away.  “Good,” he said.  “We as Christians are saved by faith, not by our works.”

“I know.”

The next morning, as we packed and cleaned our rooms, the nine of us in my small group exchanged contact information and took a group photo.  Most of them did not stay in touch with me, though, and the ones who did I only heard from for a couple months.  Life just gets in the way, I suppose.

In one of the exhibit halls was an Urbana store, selling merchandise and books.  I bought a T-shirt, with a design identical to the poster I had received in the mail when I first signed up for Urbana.  I also bought three books, two written by speakers I had heard and one a devotional book to use in my personal prayer time.  I began reading Shadow of the Almighty by Elisabeth Elliot on the plane ride home.  Although I found her talk intriguing, the book came across as boring.  A couple weeks later, I gave up halfway through the book, and while I still have it all these years later, I never finished it.

Although Urbana was an amazing experience that answered some of my questions about missions, I also felt like I was leaving with new questions.  Was it God’s will for me to serve him overseas, and how do I separate the answer to this question from my flesh and its desire to stay comfortable?  How could I serve the body of Christ back home?  Would I lead a small group senior year, and how would that impact my schedule?  As I looked forward to new opportunities and experiences in 1997 while traveling thousands of feet above the ground, I prayed that God would reveal his will to me, that he would show me where.  And, unsurprisingly, God did reveal his will to me not too long after that, and it was not at all what I was expecting.

Proof that I really did see Eddie at Urbana.

Author’s note: What’s the most interesting way you’ve ever spent a New Year?

Disclaimer: Urbana is a real event (urbana.org), but it has since moved, and is not actually held in Urbana anymore. Intervarsity was not involved in the composition of this story, and this is not a sponsored post.

December 18-26, 1996.  A time of firsts. (#112)

“What is that on the tree?” I asked, laughing, because I knew exactly what this new Christmas ornament was.

“Your brother made that,” Mom said, rolling her eyes.

Back in the 1990s, the tallest player in the National Basketball Association was seven-foot-seven-inch Gheorghe Muresan, of the team known then as the Washington Bullets.  My brother Mark loved basketball and played on the school team, and he thought Gheorghe Muresan was fascinatingly odd-looking.  Mark apparently cut a photo of Gheorghe Muresan out of a magazine, attached an ornament hook to it, and hung it on the Christmas tree.

“But why?” I asked.

“Why not?” Mark said, laughing.

“Good point.  Hey, is that a Nintendo 64?”

“Yes,” Mom answered.  “It was Mark’s early Christmas present.”

“Can I get a turn when you’re done?” I asked Mark.

“Yeah,” he said.  “Whatever.”

I took my bags to my bedroom.  I had finished final exams a few days earlier, and Christmas was about a week away.  I spent a lot of time that week playing the new Super Mario game on Mark’s Nintendo 64.  The previous Mario games had been two-dimensional platform games, in which Mario moved side to side and jumped on things.  This one was three-dimensional, with a thumbstick controlling Mario from the first person, and I had more difficulty with it.  It was still fun, though.

The week went by quickly.  I got my dad a Grateful Dead calendar for Christmas, as I always did, and I got Mom the new book in Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series, M is for Malice.  I got Mark a calendar of NBA players, which he put on his wall and then ignored.  The calendar still displayed January 1997 well into 1999, and when I asked him about it then, he complained that he never used calendars.  I never got Mark a calendar again.

We had fewer presents to open this year. Mark had already gotten his Nintendo 64, and a few days after I got home, Mom took me shopping for my early Christmas present. We bought a jacket, a beanie, and comfortable thick socks, since I was going to be spending the week after Christmas in a colder climate. On the ride home from the mall, Mom made small talk.

“How many people do you know who will be at Urbana?” she asked.

“I don’t know.  Quite a few.  But it’s such a huge convention, and I don’t know where everyone will be.  Eddie Baker told me we might not even see each other.”

Next, Mom started naming specific school friends whose names she remembered.  “What’s Brian doing for Christmas?” Mom asked.

“Going to his parents’ house in Valle Luna, then going to Urbana.  Since he’s a staff member, he has to work there, but I don’t know what he’s doing.”


“He left the apartment on Sunday.  When he left, he said, ‘I’ll see you at Urbana!’”

“What’s Eddie doing for Christmas?  Seeing his family too?”

“Yeah.  In Sunnyglen.”

“Did he tell you, ‘I won’t see you at Urbana?’”

“No,” I laughed.

Usually, the evening of December 25 was a time to relax and unwind after a long day of being around relatives.  But this year was different; Mom and I spent the evening packing.  I would need a minimum of six changes of clothes besides the clothes I would put on in the morning, so I put seven changes of clothes in my suitcase just in case.  I also packed my new jacket, beanie, and socks.  In my backpack, I put a notebook, a few pens, and my Bible.  Mom suggested that I move one change of clothes to the backpack and use it as carry-on luggage, just in case I got stranded in an airport somewhere.  I was not familiar with this concept of carry-on luggage, but I figured out what she meant.

It was close to midnight by the time I finally got to bed and set my alarm for 4:30.  Tonight was not looking like a restful night.  I was too excited and overwhelmed to fall asleep quickly, and I got less than four hours of sleep that night.  Hopefully I would be able to sleep on the plane, but since I had no concept of what an airplane trip was like, how uncomfortable or noisy it would be, I was not sure.

We left the house a little after five o’clock, which got us to the Bay City airport around seven.  The flight left at 8:30, and although going through airport security did not take nearly as long in 1996 as it does now, I still wanted to be there in plenty of time.

I did not know how to plan an airplane trip.  Tabitha Sasaki had said a few months ago that she wanted to get a few people to go in together on a flight and hotel room, and she had done all the planning; I just gave her money.  The convention did not start until the morning of the 27th, so today, the 26th, would be a travel day, ending in a stay at a hotel.

The Urbana convention, hosted by Intervarsity, the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, was named after its location in Urbana, Illinois.  Thousands of Christian young adults would descend on Urbana this week to learn about opportunities to serve Jesus around the world.  Shuttle buses for Urbana attendees would pick up students from the airports in Chicago and Indianapolis, each about a two-hour drive from Urbana.  We were scheduled to arrive in Indianapolis in the early evening, after changing planes in St. Louis.  I had never been that far east before.  I also had no memory of ever having been in an airport, so basic airport concepts like checking bags, going through security, waiting at the gate, and showing a boarding pass were completely foreign to me.  Mom says that I was on an airplane once as a baby, but I was too young to remember that.

“Which airline are you taking?” Mom asked as she turned off the freeway to the airport entrance.  Bay City International Airport was very large, with different airlines served by different terminals.

“TWA,” I replied.  Mom followed the signs to the terminal for TWA and found a place to park in a short-term parking garage.  Mom followed me inside the terminal, then asked, “Who are you supposed to be meeting here?”

“Tabitha said to meet near check-in.  Is that there?” I asked, pointing toward the long desk and longer line of travelers waiting to check bags and get boarding passes.  As we approached, I noticed a round-faced Asian girl with chin-length black hair standing not too far off and said, “There’s Tabitha right there.”

Tabitha saw me as I walked toward her.  “Hey, Greg,” she said.  “We’re still waiting for Leslie and Lillian.”

“Mom, this is Tabitha,” I said.  “Tabitha, this is my mom, Peggy.”

“Nice to meet you,” Tabitha said, shaking Mom’s hand.

“You too,” Mom replied.

“Do I have to get in that line?” I asked.  “I’ve never done this before.”

“You’ve never been on an airplane?” Tabitha replied.

“Once when I was a baby.  But I don’t remember it.”

“Oh, wow!  Yeah, we’ll have to check our bags there.  I figured the line doesn’t look too long, so we can wait until everyone gets here and all stay together.  There’s Leslie.”

“Hey, guys,” Leslie said, walking toward us.  “Is everyone here?”

“We’re still waiting for Lillian,” I said.

After I introduced Mom and Leslie, Mom said, “I still have to drive all the way back to Plumdale and work today.”

“I think you can go now,” I said.  “I’ll be okay.”

“Are you sure?” Mom asked.

“Yes.”  I knew that Mom was going to worry the whole time I was traveling, but she also seemed to be subtly complaining about having gotten up early.  I had found my traveling companions, though; I was ready to continue on my own.

“Okay,” Mom said.  “Call me from the hotel room when you get there.”

“I will.”  I gave Mom a hug and watched as she walked away.

Lillian arrived a few minutes after Mom left, and we boarded the flight to St. Louis without incident.  We rode a very large aircraft, with ten seats in each row broken into three sections by aisles.  The four of us were all near each other, although not immediately adjacent.  We had one window seat among the four of us, on the left, and being a map and geography geek, I was quite interested in seeing the United States from thousands of feet in the air.  I reminded everyone that I had not been on an airplane in almost twenty years, and that I was too young to remember my other airplane trip, so they were willing to let me have the window seat.  I decided that I would be nice and not push for the window seat on the return trip.

We took off over the Bay, and I could see Oaksville and other sprawling suburbs spread out on the other side of the Bay against the hills.  It took only a few minutes for the airplane to fly over the hills, and by the time we reached the Valley on the other side, I could spot Jeromeville in the distance, although it was too far away to identify any landmarks.

Beyond the Valley, the land below the airplane became mountainous.  Vast stretches of this terrain was high enough in altitude to be covered with snow.  It was beautiful; I had only seen snow up close twice in my life at this point.  After we had been in the air for about forty-five minutes, a layer of clouds appeared between the airplane and the ground.  I had never seen this perspective, with clouds stretched out below like a puffy carpet, but I soon got bored at staring at the clouds, since there were no features to identify.  I began dozing; I was still tired from having awakened so early this morning.

When the clouds cleared, I could see a highway interchange on the brown land below me, but I had lost all my bearings by this point and had no idea where I was.  The land was mostly featureless, and the trip was not close to being over yet.  I still looked out the window for a long time, seeing an occasional road or building below, before nodding off again.

Our plane touched down in St. Louis in mid-afternoon, although it felt like lunch time since we lost two hours because of time zones.  “Which way are we going now?” I asked Tabitha as we emerged into the airport gate.

“Follow me,” she replied, looking at her boarding pass.  We walked down a row of gates and found the one for the next leg of our flight.  It was not far from where we were, and our next flight did not leave for an hour and a half, so we went to find overpriced fast food for lunch.

“Did you say someone else we know is going to be at our hotel?” Lillian asked.

“Yes!” Tabitha replied.  “So many people from Jeromeville will be at our hotel.  We’ll probably hang out with them later tonight.”

“That’ll be fun,” I said.  With so much around me at the moment that was unfamiliar, in light of Eddie’s comment about how we might not see anyone we know at Urbana, I definitely felt relieved that others I knew would be at the hotel.

Boarding the flight to Indianapolis was much like the experience of boarding the other flight from Bay City to St. Louis, but the inside of the airplane was much different.  This plane was smaller, with only six seats across and one aisle down the middle.  The flight itself was also much shorter, so I did not have time for a nap.  I sat in a middle seat, so my view out the window was not as clear as on the first leg of the flight, but as the plane headed east, I noticed more and more snow appearing on the ground.  By the time we landed in Indianapolis, the entire ground was covered in a few inches of snow for as far as I could see in any direction.  I wondered if the ground in Indiana and Illinois was continuously covered in snow all winter.  I mentioned to the others while we were waiting to get our luggage that I had never seen so much snow in my life.

“Really?” Leslie asked.

“We’re definitely not home anymore,” Tabitha said.

We caught a shuttle bus to the hotel.  The driver seemed completely unfazed by the snow.  I would have been panicking, driving in the snow like that, wondering if I needed to put chains on the tires, but people who lived in this climate apparently knew how to drive in snow.  There did not seem to be snow accumulating on the roads, probably because the snow was not currently falling and cars had been driving on the road all day.

I was the only guy in our travel group, so Tabitha had booked me in a separate room.  After we checked in, I went to my room and lay on the bed.  I spent the next hour or so attempting to nap again.  Although the clock said it was dinner time, I was not hungry, since I had just eaten a fairly large lunch, and my body was still on West Coast time and felt like it was earlier.

At around quarter to eight, Tabitha knocked on my door; Leslie was with her.  “We saw Scott and Amelia in the lobby earlier.  We’re all going to meet now to watch Friends.  You wanna come?”

I was not expecting to have a major quandary on this trip.  In an effort to keep from alienating myself from all of the people I had met at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and Jeromeville Covenant Church, I had hidden from them the fact that I did not watch Friends.  Since I was on a school holiday, it had not even crossed my mind that today was Thursday, and that Friends would be on tonight.  I had never actually seen the show, so I could not really say that I hated it, but the show was extremely popular, and I got the impression from commercials and hearing people talk about the show that it was not my thing.  However, could I really have a well-formed opinion of the show without having watched it?  I also did not want to pass up an opportunity to see my actual friends here in this unfamiliar, snow-covered landscape, so I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Sure.”

I followed Tabitha and Leslie upstairs to a hallway that looked identical to the one on my floor.  They knocked on a door, and Amelia answered.  “Hey,” she said.  Then, noticing me, seeing me for the first time in two weeks, she said, “Hi, Greg!  How are you?  How was your Christmas?”

“Good,” I replied.  “Just the usual stuff with my family.  My brother got a Nintendo 64, so that was fun.  How was yours?”

“Nice.  But I spent most of yesterday packing, so I wasn’t around my family as much.”

I walked into the room, where about a dozen people had packed in on the beds and floor, including Amelia’s boyfriend Scott, Lillian from our flight, Melinda Schmidt, Joe Fox, Alyssa Kramer, Autumn Davies, Leah Eckert, and others.  I made small talk with some of the people in the room for a few minutes until the show started.

As I watched the six New Yorkers on the screen talk about their lives, careers, and sexual partners, I realized exactly why I disliked the show.  I found all of them completely unrelatable.  The show had some moments that made me chuckle, but so much of the plot revolved around relationships and sex, for which I had no frame of reference.  They reminded me of the stereotypical cool kids who excluded me and got what they wanted through morally questionable means.  I wondered why so many of my Christian friends were so attached to a show with characters behaving in a way that contradicted the Bible’s teachings about sexuality.  I hoped that the others in the room did not live like Rachel and Ross and Joey and all the annoying people on the screen.  But I kept quiet and watched the show; now was not the time to start an argument.  And now that I had watched the show, I knew for sure that I did not like it.

I looked out the hotel window before I went to bed that night and watched snow fall lightly on the parking lot for a few minutes.  When I woke up in the morning, the snow was clearly deeper than it had been yesterday.  I bundled up, wearing my new jacket and beanie, and met Tabitha and the others in the lobby at the time we had discussed, to wait for the shuttle bus.  After we boarded the bus, it took a little over two hours to travel west through the snow-covered rolling hills to the campus.

I was excited for what was coming.  This winter break had been a time of firsts.  Back home with my brother was my first time playing Nintendo 64.  Now, this trip was my first time being on an airplane, at least in my memory; my first time in a different time zone; and my first time in Missouri and Indiana.  This morning, as I saw a sign out the bus window that said “ILLINOIS STATE LINE,” I added a third new state to this trip.  It had also been my first time watching Friends, an experience I had no particular desire to replicate.  Once I arrived on the campus and stood in line for registration, receiving a bracelet as a convention attendee, I knew that this would be a unique experience opening my eyes to new firsts that God would show me in the upcoming years.

(To be continued…)

The actual wristband from 1996. Photo recreated using my 2021 wrist.

Author’s note:

Hi, friends! I’m back… my break from writing was a little longer than I thought it would be, mostly just because life got in the way. During the break, I started another blog (click here) to write about other things, or to write about writing, or to share other creative works besides my continuing story. I’m not planning to post there on any schedule, but you can subscribe if you want updates from me. Also, I wrote a couple of guest posts for other blogs; I will share the links here when they get published.

This Urbana trip was the farthest I had been from my home in the western US at the time, but as of 2021, the farthest I have been from home is Kittery, Maine, on the US East Coast about an hour drive north of Boston. The story of that trip will be told in Just Take The Leap, a sequel to Don’t Let The Days Go By that I plan on writing someday, years from now.

What is the farthest you have been from home?

Disclaimer: Urbana is a real event (urbana.org), but it has since moved, and is not actually held in Urbana anymore. Intervarsity was not involved in the composition of this story, and this is not a sponsored post.

Mom found the Christmas ornament and put it up this year.