This past weekend, I was invited by one of my former youth group students from St. Peter’s (and god-sister to my kids) to be a Spiritual Director for New Beginnings. New Beginnings is a weekend retreat for 7th through 9th graders. Many dioceses have New Beginnings, including our own Diocese of Atlanta, but this one took place in my home diocese, the Diocese of Georgia at their camp and conference center Honey Creek. As many of you know, Honey Creek was almost as much of my childhood home as Augusta was. So I was honored when Kimberly asked me to serve, along with her father, my former rector at St. Peter’s, Sam Buice.
New Beginnings is a weekend that touches middle-schoolers where they are. That age group is in such flux, not quite children and not yet close to adulthood. They are learning about peer pressure, friendships, sexuality, family issues, and within all of those, how to navigate their own faith. New Beginnings does a really good job of addressing many of these issues.
The weekend is mostly led by teenagers. There are plenty of adults present to chaperone and support, but the youth are the ones who keep us on schedule, lead games, play music, give talks, facilitate small groups, and lead most worship services. It’s always quite amazing to see this take place. These young people do a great job of using their own God-given gifts to spread God’s love to all the new participants.
The weekend always starts off a little awkward. Teenagers are still used to their school identities, where you clump with your friends or similar-looking people. But very quickly, they are engaged in games, singing, and small groups that allow these walls to crumble. By the middle of the second day, these young people are arm-in-arm as they sing, laugh, play, and learn.
For as many weekends like these that I’ve done, I am still in awe of that transformation. It’s a sign of God’s kingdom present in our world. It’s a beacon of light and hope in our sometimes dark world. I’m also amazed by the friendships that are forged here, which last forever. There were adults on the weekend with whom I went through these programs as a teenager, and some who were youth when I was first ordained, who have now grown into maturity and are giving back by supporting the programs and leading them behind-the-scenes.
The climax of New Beginnings is a “sin-burning service.” We explain that sin is separation from God and that God always forgives them and wants them back. We invite them to write these sins on slips of paper and then invite them to bring them to the altar, where there is a bowl of flames waiting to consume their paper and their sins. It’s a tangible reality of God’s consuming love for us. As you can imagine, it’s an intensely emotional experience for young people who have never heard this message before. Afterwards, we invited them to come for healing prayers. After receiving forgiveness, they are healed in mind, body, and spirit and thus, a new beginning is made.
While things change at Honey Creek as I get older, and while God’s beloved children are making fresh starts and new changes, I am struck by how simple, important, and constant the message of God’s forgiveness is. That message that was communicated to me as a teenager is still being communicated on the holy ground of Honey Creek. The same could be said for Camp Mikell, or any other place where these types of programs happen.
The church is indeed alive and well, my friends. As Kimberly told the group in her talk entitled The Church and Me, we are not called to go to church, we are called to be the church.
As I listened, 15 years since I first went to a New Beginnings, a new beginning was forged in my heart again. Thanks be to God!