This past weekend was our annual youth trip to Gatlinburg for the Northeast Alabama United Methodist Conference's winter retreat. Encounter 2008 was a mostly a success, though it did not even begin to compare with last year's amazing conference. The speaker started off slow, but he had a good message in the end. Steve Fitzhugh, last year's speaker, had so much energy and enthusiasm for his message that you couldn't help but be inspired. Steve could make you laugh uncontrollably, then bring tears to your eyes three minutes later. Bart Campolo, who spoke this year, didn't bring quite the stage presence (then again, he's not a very large, black former NFL player!), but he did ultimately present a good message. He was also straightforward and obviously was not trying to please everyone with his message, but was speaking what he truly believed. I respect that, as I struggle to find the courage to do just that at times. The youth said they had an all-around better time last year, but I hope they got some new inspiration out of this conference as well. We discussed some of the ideas presented on the way home, and it seems like some of them really understood, even though it was much more understated than they are used to.
Bart has a big emphasis on missionary work and giving to those in need, whether it be the giving of your time, money, material possessions, or just love. One thing he said resonated with me particularly, because it's something I have felt for a long time, I just didn't know how to adequately express it. He stressed that it is important to remember that we don't have the things we have (wealth, jobs, health, etc.) because of anything we have done to deserve it, or because God has "blessed" us more than others. We simply were lucky enough to be born where we are, with the advantages we have. People in Africa or other third-world areas did not do anything to deserve the life they live, and we are not in any way "better" than them...basically just lucky to live in a place with all the opportunities that are available to us.
I recently read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (great novel, by the way!), which puts this idea in a great perspective. It's about a family of missionaries who go to live in the Congo and convert the Africans to Christianity. You can probably imagine how things don't go quite as planned, and the missionaries themselves are actually the ones who emerge the most dramatically changed.
Anyway, good trip this year, and looking forward to some new ideas we have going on with the youth. I love this time of year, because we are all still pumped up from the conference and everyone feels good about their walk with Christ. I have been talking to one of the girls in youth about confirmation classes to be baptized and join the church. I am really excited about her taking this step...it makes me feel like we are doing some good and actually getting through to at least some of them!