The last week of September was quite hectic, as I was busy working as well as preparing for Encounter, the annual youth retreat here in Shanghai, in which several area youth groups participate. The event took place this weekend, and I have to say, my expectations were greatly exceeded.
God’s been gracing me with faith lately that he is mighty to save and will do great things, and I’ve been praying accordingly. This assurance also applied to the retreat, and I prayed fervently for God’s spirit to move and for his words to come forth clearly and with power. I prayed that he would be preparing the hearts of all the leaders involved as well as the students who would be attending.
But I must admit, I brought to the retreat not only my faith, but my characteristic cynicism. I was confident that God was going to do a work, but although I didn’t verbalize it, I thought it was going to be more in spite of the speaker than through him. I’ve only been a believer for about seven years, but that’s long enough to know how things generally go in the christian world. There’s a plethora of forty-something youth pastors who dress and wear their hair like teenagers do and fill up their sermons with funny stories and witty jokes to capture the kids’ attention, and they somehow manage to leave the gospel behind.
I am very pleased to report that the very first sermon was a huge rebuke to me! I expected to be greeted that morning with a humorous story that was only vaguely related to a biblical principal of which the speaker would barely skim the surface. The speaker instead turned to Ezekiel 36 to show the students what it looks like for God to truly convert someone, taking out the heart of stone and replacing it with a heart of flesh that lives and beats for God!
The theme of this year’s retreat was “Devoted”, so I expected some silly story about a dog and how it’s devoted to its master. There was, indeed, a story about a dog. The speaker likened his dog to sin nature; if he feeds his dog a treat when he’s not supposed to, the dog’s appetite for the treat grows, and he comes back wanting more of it, more often. He then reminded us that the unconverted person is a slave to sin and cannot help sinning, but just like in the dog analogy, our sin nature comes to us begging to be fed, but it is not our master – God has freed us. The speaker then exhorted the saved not to feed their sin nature.
The speaker reminded us through II Timothy not to get entangled in civilian pursuits, but to be good soldiers, eager to please our commanding officer. He reminded us through Hebrews to go boldly to the throne of grace because Jesus bought our right to do so! If nothing else can be said about the retreat, it is that the congregation was washed in the water of the word!
I heard some of the youth grumbling a bit after the first sermon, that the speaker was a little boring compared to those at past retreats. I later found out that they always compare the speakers to one in particular, because he was the most funny, the “coolest.” But by the end, there was such a worshipful mindset among the students, and people were truly brought to repentance of sin, deliverance from strongholds, encouragement in their faith, and salvation! There was an extended praise and worship session that lasted much longer than scheduled, and I was told that the attendees had never prayed as passionately, wept as deeply, and sang as loudly as they did that night!
There was a time for testimonials, and some of them brought me to tears. One girl said she’d been dealing with some big problems in her life, and she’d buried them so deep that she’d been fooling herself into thinking God didn’t see them. She was up early on the second morning of the retreat and read in Matthew about two blind men who had heard Jesus was coming down the road, so they began crying out to him. She knew those problems had been blinding her, and so, sitting on the steps outside her cabin, she cried out to God. And she realized that it’s ok to be broken – that it’s better to be broken than to be strong, because when you’re strong, you don’t think you need God.
This wasn’t a retreat after which everyone talked about all the fun they had, although they had it. They didn’t talk about how funny the speaker was, although he wasn’t totally devoid of humor. They talked about what God did. He made his name famous this weekend! He answered my prayers. And as I pray for more of his spirit to be poured out here and elsewhere, I am even more confident that he will grant that request!