When I was in high school I participated in a summer service project every year called River of Life. My youth group would bring a group to the host church, Lincolnton United Methodist Church, where we would join other groups of teenagers and complete construction projects for people in the community. You could be on paint teams where you would scrape, make minor repairs to woodwork and then (obviously) repaint the exterior of the homes; you could be on building teams where you would build a deck, or wheelchair ramp to make a home handicap accessible; or you could be on a roofing team where you would repair and re-roof homes.
[Here is where I will seem to have a split personality to some of you…I was ALWAYS a roofer (and looked on with disdain at all those who were below me…get it…) Seriously, I decided roofing was the only serious enough team for me. I wanted to be up high, on the roof, because after all, the higher you are, the closer to God (as Erika always reminded me about the height of our beds). Non-roofers were non-Holy. And I mean paint fights, pshh, that stuff was oil based, you’d have that kid’s hand print slapped on your leg for WEEKS! You couldn’t be afraid of heights, afraid of heat, afraid of REAL hard work…afraid to use a hammer, afraid to kiss the “shangle” the entire team had to kiss…roofing was NOT for the faint of heart. But you could be afraid of talking and people and not matching…That helps a little, right?]
We would wake up with the sun, have breakfast at the church and head out to our work sites and work all morning. We came in for a hot lunch and a cool break at the church for lunch and head back out for a few more hours until it got too hot in the afternoons. We had free time in the afternoons for lake fun, naps, and anything and everything else you can imagine when you add “teenagers” plus “free time.”
We’d shower and gather for dinner and then a worship service each night. There were games, videos of the day’s work, an ongoing skit, worship music, a teaching and ministry time afterwards. This event in my life every summer is one of the most meaningful and memorable events in my life.
So if I had to use only one word that described what ROL means to me, of an overarching theme of my time there through the years…it would be tears. Um, what? You heard me correctly…stick with me and see what I mean.
Back at the hotel my very first night after dinner, sticking close to Leigh, I followed her out of a hotel room when I was unmercifully splashed in the face with an ice bucket full of water. I cried. Then I ran back to my room, filled up my OWN ice bucket and joined the fight.
I gathered with my first roofing team the very first morning before the sun was up. I didn’t know anybody and I clung to Leigh Randall, begging her not to make me go. She did. I cried.
As I floated safe in my innertube one afternoon at the lake until Mitchell swam over and flipped me into the water. I cried
Since I was already wet I was convinced that it would be real fun to jump off the rail of the double decker dock like all the cool kids were doing…I did…and I swallowed about 47% of the lake…and threw up all night long. I cried. I learned to trust my gut and not do stupid things people try to get me to do…wait, no, I didn’t because…
I let a girl named Lisa Marie talk me into laying on the ground with her while the boys rolled a hay bale over us. [For you city people…a bale of hay weighs about 1000 lbs.] It hurt and I cried.
I had to leave early and go baby-sit at the beach one year and when my mom came to get me, I cried.
I played wiffle ball in the backyard after dinner the year Hamp was one and I scooped him up, rolled back in the grass holding him high in the air…and laid on a bee. It stung my back and you guessed it, I cried.
I started college during the summer of 2002 and had to miss most of the event. I drove back and forth every morning and afternoon and I really cried.
That year I left in the middle of a service one night and sat outside on the steps of the church. I was having a really hard time in life. And Leigh Beggs, a stranger to me, met me on those steps and talked to me for hours. I never stopped crying the whole time.
Another year we had worked all day stripping the shingles off of the roof of the house we were re-doing when it looked like it was going to rain. It was if I was watching the whole thing in slow motion: the rain approaching, the team coming together, lined up and and working like machines, in the BEST display of teamwork I have EVER seen and got tar paper rolled, tacked and a tarp covering the roof while the heavens opened up in torrential rain on us. It was beautiful, and it was totally the Lord. …But the roof fell in. I bawled. Poor Chuck, in a neck brace and I think on crutches already telling me it was all going to work out and be fine.
I visited ROL one year to hear my college pastor speak at the service one night. We got about 30 minutes from home when I realized I had left my keys in Licolnton. I cried. MY friend turned around to get them for me the next morning instead of us going back that night in my exhausted emotional state. I cried.
I watched several of my best friends give their lives to Christ on Saturday nights. I cried.
A fellow roofer died unexpectedly in college and we all cried.
I walked down the aisle in the Lincolnton United Methodist Church EVERY year and nailed my sins to the cross and took Holy Communion with people who loved me and I cried.
And as I drove home from Hilton Head Island last Wednesday I thought about River of Life as I approached Augusta. I wondered if it was ROL week…? I began to get excited…I looked on the website (as I was stopped at a red light, I’m sure…) and ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME!?! IT WAS!!! Tonight would be the first night and I was most assuredly stopping in.
But in accordance with this entire post, as soon as I pulled into town I started sobbing uncontrollably. I asked myself, whoa, what was the matter with me!? I was supposed to be excited!!! I started to think about all of the things I loved and laughed about, the light hearted funny things, when we used to do flips across the beds and Jessi missed and only my suitcase saved her life…How the lights to the bathrooms are on the outside of the door so anytime you attempted to take a shower the lights would undoubtedly get turned off on you and be plunged into total darkness…The cup game that the entire group would join in on at meal times, singing “I’ve got a River of Life” as fast as humanly possible, Hot-Robbie-Lester, the MacGuyver skit, and so much more. Happy things make me cry a little, but there was more. I started thinking of all of the tears, the things that I shared above and realized a little deeper what all of those things meant to me…and that the Spirit of the Lord is and always has been overwhelmingly sweet in that place.
James and Billy from the water fight were on my roofing team the next day. James also went as my date to my Senior prom a few years later. James’ mom Mary was my table leader at Chrysalis. He eventually married Kristina, one of my college roommates.
Also on my first roofing team I met Elizabeth and Erika. Future college roommates and best friends. I was in Erika’s wedding five years later, and five years ago this month!
Lisa Marie became my college roommate as well and introduced me to her sister, one of the best friends I have ever had. This group of girls is the only reason I ever made it through college and have helped to make me the person I am today.
I learned that the Lord works through strangers, people I barely know to love me in the hardest times and that sometimes the people I want aren’t always the people I need. Life is about the experience and the process and the journey, regardless of the end result. Regardless if the roof falls in…God is good, God is working and He will never fail. I will NEVER forget that year.
If I was as courageous as I am on a roof, I would make a toast and have every teenager, every person who has ever participated in a River of Life in any way hear, “There is sweat, occasionally blood, and tears…but the Spirit of the Lord is in this place. Fires are started…Kingdom work is done. People are knitted together in the most intimate of ways. Roofers become roommates and prom dates, sisters and friends. Look around you, people you will have for the rest of your life, who will love you and support you and pray you through anything, the body of Christ. There is something special about this place indeed. You’ll never believe what the Lord has in store for your life and it all started here. Where faith is being expressed through love. And after all, that is the only thing that counts. Here’s to River of Life.”