It's time for a little lighter reading, so I'll reminisce a bit.
When I went away to college, it was the first time I'd ever lived away from home. I was 17 years old when I arrived on campus, 60 miles from my hometown in Nebraska. My 18th birthday came a couple of weeks after school started. I didn't know too many people, so I was pretty depressed on that day. I really didn't feel like walking around cheerfully announcing, "Hi, my name's Dan. Today's my birthday!" I felt alone and unimportant - and cranky.
To make matters worse, an upperclassman shared my birthday. Everywhere I went all day long, "Happy Birthday Darin" was chalked on the sidewalk and posted on walls.. My mood just kept getting blacker. Thankfully, my friend Randy - whom I'd known for all of two weeks - found out it was my birthday and mobilized a group of students to cheer me up. Somebody got a cake and they had a little party for me. It seems pretty insignificant now, but it was huge to me back then. (Randy and I remain good friends all these years later.)
Like all "itty-bitty freshmen", I had to learn where to go and what to do. I did have a bit of an advantage, because my sister had been attending that college for a couple of years. The year before, I had occasionally gone to a Bible study at a house across the street from the campus, where I met a few of the students. But I still had to experience the learning curve associated with being on my own for the first time. No one else was going to make sure I got enough sleep
(I didn't), made it to classes on time or did my homework. I was responsible for my own behavior and choices. And I had to learn some lessons the hard way. (For example, I learned to never schedule an English grammar class at 7:30 in the morning...)
One of the classes I took that first semester was choral music. I had enjoyed singing in the chorus throughout junior high and high school and looked forward to singing with a group in college.
And this was a low risk activity - I didn't have to try out and take a chance of being rejected. If you signed up, you were in. The school had several singing groups one could try out for, but I did NOT intend to do so. I had no confidence in my abilities - I had always been the kid who was just not quite good enough, the one picked last on the team. I was comfortable being one of a hundred voices in the choir, and had no desire to move beyond that comfort zone.
But God had different plans...
My first day in choir, a girl I'd met at the Bible study across the street made a beeline for me. Louann asked me to come and try out for the singing group she was in. I protested that I didn't think I was good enough, that I hadn't even considered trying out, and any other excuse I could come up with. She would not be dissuaded. She pretty much took me by the arm and dragged me up to the classroom to try out. She saw something in me that I couldn't see, potential I had no idea was there.
Next thing I knew, I was part of the "Maker's Dozen". (Clever name, huh?) I had no idea what I was in for. In retrospect, I believe the main reason God sent me to this particular school was to be involved in this group. I learned so much: group dynamics, how to improvise harmonies, organizational skills, and trusting God for provision. Honestly, the lessons I learned in class were insignificant compared to what I learned as part of the Maker's Dozen.
As the name implies, the group consisted of 12 college students, fairly evenly divided between male & female. We were an officially recognized college organization, student directed and led. The first couple of months were a whirlwind of activity. We spent lots of time selecting songs, developing arrangements and harmonies, learning each others' strengths and weaknesses, and rehearsing. We learned how to share our faith publicly, and how to trust each other. And we bought fabric and sewed matching costumes. Here's what we looked like:
This photo was actually from my second year in the group, so I was 19 years old. I'm in the back row, far left. Be thankful this picture is in black & white - just look at that fabric! Those shirts were vintage '70s garish. At least the vests and dresses were a solid color, kind of a sky blue. In keeping with our very modest budget, we also designed and hand-colored our promotional posters, which is where this picture came from. (Amazing that I still have one of these!) The complete poster looked like this:
Finally, around Thanksgiving, we started performing publicly. We sang in churches, schools and nursing homes, prisons and city missions. We ministered to youth groups and in senior centers. The schedule started out kind of slowly until after winter break. The second semester we traveled nearly every weekend to towns all over the Midwest, with a major trip over spring break. I was in Maker's Dozen two years, and in that time we drove through 35 states. My first year our big trip was to New Jersey and New York. The second year's trip was to Arizona and southern California. Who knows how many miles we logged in college vans?
While the school did provide vehicles, we were expected to raise support for gas and expenses through freewill offerings. We stayed with host families who fed and lodged us, and tried to study as we drove down the road. Most of all, we learned to present Christ publicly, not just with our words but with our actions. We had to really love one another, overlooking quirks and flaws as we cared about each other. Each of us had opportunity to speak publicly at times, and to demonstrate the love of Jesus by the way we behaved when we weren't on stage.
One valuable life lesson was that ministry is truly about God, not us. He's responsible for results - we simply have to be faithful and available to do our part. Here's a story to illustrate what I mean:
We were traveling through Iowa toward the end of the school year. Offerings hadn't been very good, and we were concerned that we'd end up in the red, with no money set aside for the next year's startup costs. So we prayed about it before our last concert of the trip, telling God how much we needed a good response.
The church was a mainline denomination, with mostly older people attending the service. They didn't look very happy to see us in our bright costumes, bringing (gasp) guitars into the sanctuary! Throughout the concert, they sat with arms folded, politely applauding but not too enthusiastic. And we flopped - forgetting words, harmonies not quite right, stammering and stuttering. We were embarrassed, and felt as if we'd really failed God, and at the worst possible time!
After the concert, we visited with people, prepared to apologize for our lackluster performance. And to our surprise, they were so complimentary, telling us how wonderful it had been, how they really sensed the Holy Spirit in our presentation, how much they'd enjoyed the whole concert. We were thinking, "were you even in the same room?" And this wasn't just polite talk - when the offering was counted up, it was the largest single gift we'd received the entire year! It was more than enough to pay the remaining bills, with a good amount to bank for the next year.
God really built our faith that day. We learned it wasn't about our performance - it's about Him!
Oh, He desires excellence, that we should share our gifts freely and do our very best. But staying connected to Him is the real key. Lessons like this have stayed with me throughout my life.
I've been involved in some sort of public ministry ever since, just doing what I do and trusting God to bring fruit from my labors. I'm so thankful that God changed my plans all those years ago.