Last weekend, I got to take a group of our high school youth out to Lyle Lodge for our High School Retreat. Our theme this year was koinonia, which is the Greek word for community. We talked about what it means to be truly with and for each other as members of Christian community. We grilled burgers and threw Frisbees and fed ducks and played a very stupid game called “birdie on a perch” which had, at best, loose relevancy to the content of the retreat.
We also talked about hopes and fears and God and heartbreak. We prayed and worshipped and washed each other’s feet as a couple of the senior girls held each other and cried.
It was such a gift to get to spend some time with those teenagers, so many who have spent years and years growing in faith with this church and alongside each other. My youth pastor growing up, who performed my wedding, and who I consider a mentor to this day, tells a beautiful story that I thought of as I watched those high school students climb trees and talk of God:
In the late 1800s, at the College of Oxford, a grounds manager noticed that the ceiling beams in the main hall were infested with beetles. The old oak beams were huge and over a hundred feet long, they were an iconic part of the look of the college. The staff were dismayed, how would they even begin to replace something like that, where would they possibly find oak trees of that size, especially in a rapidly industrializing England?
One of the architects started digging around for the old building plans, the building had been constructed in 1379 and he had low hopes any documents still existed. What he did find was a proclamation from the first Forester of the college, setting aside a patch of land for the growing of trees to be used in repairing college buildings. Confident that this document from the 14th century could in no way be legally binding, but without many other options, the architect went out to the piece of land and tracked down its owner. He sheepishly told the owner about his strange mission, saying that apparently someone decreed in the 1300s that this land was to be used for the growing of oak trees for the main hall of the College of Oxford. The owner listened and then chuckled,
“Well we’ve been wondering when you would show up.” He showed the architect a whole grove of oak trees that his family had been caring for over 500 years, they were at least as tall and thick as the ones in the hall, and had been specifically grown for just that purpose.
Five hundred years earlier, a man had planted some oak trees, with no idea or inclination of when they would be needed, no evidence of his great work, but an unwavering belief that those things he planted would one day be great, and be put to great use.
At the day school, and children’s academy, and confirmation, and middle school small groups, and high school Sunday School classes, we have tended the saplings of oaks first planted in baptism. High school ministry is remarkable, because when I listen to them talk of faith and the future and who they believe God is calling them to be, I get one of the first glimpses of them as true oak trees. I get a hint of what great purpose it was they were planted for. And that makes every bit worth it. Children’s and youth ministries are in the business of planting oak trees, and High School Retreat is one of my favorite events of the year, because I am consistently delighted by seeing what has grown here.