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The Church’s Unsung Gift

I write this in a seaside house on a small island. The house is light-soaked and quiet. It has sprawling cedar decks built to the edge of rocky shoals, and a large dock whose ramp teeters down to it as you walk out on it, a gang-plank-cum-see-saw. Almost every window frames a piece of sea and sky. In the mornings I sit in a window alcove, a fleece blanket draped over my shoulders against the morning chill, and pull things in close with binoculars. Our week here is a gift from good friends, who own the house, and who are themselves sleeping in an Atco trailer down the road to make room for us. My guilt about that is easily assuaged by the pleasure I take in everything: sunlight falling slantwise through windows, sailboats cutting white wakes in dark water, the smell of coffee, the sound of water on rock, the gray sleekness of the heron that perches daily at the dock’s edge, patient and watchful and quick as lightning when it counts.

Last week, I was on the same island, a few kilometres down the road, and busy. Cheryl and I were speakers at Barnabas Family camp. It was a work week: 14 speaking sessions in 6 days. 5 of the sessions were almost 2 hours each. In between, individuals or couples wanted to meet with us, some just to spend time, others seeking counsel or prayer. It was the kind of week that normally exhausts me. I usually return from an assignment like that spent, brittle, slightly jaded.

But this was different. Barnabas is a place of shalom, and even in giving I found myself refreshed. I kept thinking of a line from The Lord of the Rings, describing Rivendell:

Such was the virtue of the land of Rivendell that soon all fear and anxiety was lifted from their minds. The future, good or ill, was not forgotten, but ceased to have any power over the present. Health and hope grew strong in them, and they were content with each good day as it came, taking pleasure in every meal, and in every word and song.

Such was the virtue of the land.

Part of the magic spell Barnabas casts is through its remarkable staff. The place is mostly run by 20 or so 20-somethings, a clutch of young adults under the steady but unobtrusive guidance of a few older adults. I have never seen anything quite like it: the combination of youthful energy, outsized giftedness, joyful servanthood, and humble leadership. They are on duty morning till night, over a wide range of activities from cleaning and cooking and childcare to music and drama and teaching, and never seem to lose an inch of patience, creativity or enthusiasm. They are prayerful, playful, generous, polite, and astonishingly talented. They don’t appear to carry an ounce of entitlement. More than anything, they brim with gratitude for the opportunity. If this represents the future of the church – indeed, the future of the world – then we have abundant grounds for both being both thankful and hopeful.

I think it also is a testimony to what the church is doing right. Most of these young people are between 18 and 22. They have confidence without a shadow of arrogance. They truly, deeply love Jesus. They walk in real purity. Every morning, when Cheryl and I had the privilege of sharing briefly with them, they came with wide-open attentiveness and prayed with fervor, faith, and a concern for others that made my own prayers seem tepid, halting, and self-absorbed.

I sat one day at lunch with a table full of them, and asked about their “training.” Everyone was reared in the arms of the church. They learned early and as a matter of course to serve gladly, to cultivate their gifts to the full, and to use whatever they had in time, talent or money for the sake of God’s Kingdom. The church, without even really trying, had groomed them for true greatness. The gifts needed to lead well – a deep but humble confidence, a calmness in crisis, an ability to inspire and direct, a willingness to sacrifice personal comfort, a depth of perseverance, a clear eye on the big idea, an attention to details, and, always, courage – they have in spades. I doubt their non-Christian friends have anything even close to this.

There is perhaps much to lament about the modern church. But I just spent the week with 20 or so 20-somethings that reminded me, as Bill Hybels loves to say, that “the local church is the hope of the world.”

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