Last week, I wrote about about a special place for gathering the tribe of teenagers of First Baptist Church of Decatur. It’s called Folly Beach. It was fun to remember and write about an experience that was formative for me. I was in the middle of preparing for the funeral of one of my closest friends, Ron Lane, who had worked for me as a youth sponsor at Folly Beach. That made the story particularly touching to me and fueled my memory. The response after last week’s post from both kids and adult sponsors was gratifying, as well as confessionals from other former brave youth ministers.
I promised two more entries that emanate from Folly: a tale about the birth of a new person; two, my distillation of what I learned about ministry from my work at Folly. I hope you enjoy it.
My tale of birth comes from my first experience at Folly that I wrote about last week. It involves the birthing of a person whose name is Ralph.
The age grouping on my Folly trips were problematic and yet promising. It included a wide age span, including eight grade through graduating seniors. Truth be told, we also used Folly to train Day Camp counselors which included mostly college kids. So it was the definition of “wide”.
The older kids meant trying to maintain a modicum of control while encouraging the continuing development and beginning some critical thinking. Who am I? What do I believe? What do I care about? What might be worth my life? These are the questions that confront a young person, and gets filled out in young adulthood. For most of our kids, the palette of college would allow for a full portrait to be painted in striking colors.
The younger kids usually were of two types. One group had been counting down the days to be old enough to qualify as a member of the youth group. Those kids usually had older brothers and sisters who made the road ahead clearer. It was fun to watch them on-board and make their own way onto the scene, taking their God-given right to be here on this planet in this particular spot, Folly Beach.
The other group were the kids who had no clue. They defined my phrase “just loose and happy to be here”. Many times, I would get calls from their mothers prior to the event, making sure that their child would be properly outfitted for the week at the beach, prepared with doctor-certified sunscreen.
That was more than true for Ralph. Ralph’s mama called me three or four times to make sure she had properly outfitted young Ralph for his virgin week at the South Carolina beach. I remember feeling sorry for him as his mom bade him a tearful farewell at the bus there in the First Baptist parking lot. Ralph seemed to not be bothered by her attention, perhaps immune to it by now, and simply climbed aboard the bus bound for Glory.
How I can I describe Ralph without turning him into a cartoon character? I can’t. If you were wanting to go to casting central and get a young nerd for your new come-of-age movie, you would have Ralph. He was an awkwardly tall, skinny kid, with a bookish pair of classes that made him look like a prematurely born Buddy Holly. His mom had purchased a kind of formless bucket hat. She provided some slip-on shoes for his casual walking, which Ralph wore on his beach walks. Obviously, Ralph’s family beach trips were highlighted by the collecting of sea shells, a reasonable thing to do at the beach, but Ralph made it into a science. He would take long walks by himself with his bucket hat on, Buddy Holly black glasses, his slip-on Keds, his orange plastic bucket to gather his shell treasures and would carry a net on a stick. You got the picture? Full-tilt nerd.
I was so proud of my group that embraced the young, fledgling, quirky Ralph without laughing at him or making fun of him. This was my first experience with this group, and while I had laid out expectations of care and inclusion, I had no idea if this would be like most church mottoes that would become laminated slogans on a wall somewhere, forgotten, gone with the wind. Not here. They made a point to include Ralph at meal time. Folks talked with him during down time and made him feel welcome in his small group. Slowly, Ralph was lightening up on his daily regimen of shell search, and was content to talk with new found friends. It was the beginning of his long, strange trip into personhood. It was like watching an egg hatch, with the baby chick pecking his way through the protective shell. This is the STUFF of youth retreats, the birthing of a new person, and we were the mid-wives in the messy process. God, I loved it.
The crescendo came on our last night at The Dance. We had cleared the floor and set up the stereo on a table at the end of the hall. As I mentioned in an earlier article, this was the summer of Rumours, the break-out album of Fleetwood Mac, with the inimitable siren voice of Stevie Nicks and strong, pensive croon of Lindsey Buckingham. There were obligatory Motown songs, new twists by Stevie Wonder, no longer little. But what I remember from that summer was Rumours.
Pause. A musical interlude.
The first side of Rumours is arguably the best record side of songs ever produced. It begins with Second Hand News, which begins with a killer beat, that begs you to dance, invites a fall back to the Bump of the early 70s. Then a little Stevie mood music with Dreams, images of thunder, a soulful bass underlying the lyrics of dreamy connection, with players only love you when they’re playing. Never Going Back Again, with some tasty guitar licks from Lindsey, provides an acoustic break. Don’t Stop kicks ass, so much that Clinton resurrected it for the march of hope to the presidency in 92. I stood on stage with Bill in Tyler, and remembered the enthusiasm of the night at the beach with this song blasting…..it’ll soon be here! Ah, youth. Don’t you look back! But I can’t help it. Go Your Own Way follows, with a driving beat, and stunning vocal harmonies. The first side of the album, ends with Songbird, one of the more pensive cuts on the album, with Christine McVie’s thoughtful reflections. We generally skipped it, dropping the needle back on the first track. By the way, boys and girls, the needle is on a record player that Joe Biden is fond of referencing. The second side has You Make Loving Fun, I Don’t Want to Know, keeps the world rocking. Gold Dust Woman gives some mega dosage of reality and reminds you of life back home from the beach, even though I was loving the bass line of John. Did she make you cry, make you break down, shatter your illusions of love? Why yes….yes she did. Stevie owned this song….and my heart.
Back to Ralph.
The dance was a huge success with lights down and the sound up. Kids were on the dance floor rocking, adult sponsors losing inhibitions without the help of artificial substances. It was a great night as our hero, Ralph watched from the side. digging it in his own special way. His body bobbed in a rhythm only he knew but he was definitely getting is groove on. His drink of choice was a grape Fanta, of a recent vintage, if I remember correctly. It left a tell-tale wisp of a mustache over his lip, giving him an Errol Flynn rakish style, as he just might grab the chandelier and swing into action.
It was a beautiful set up as if the gods of adolescence were conspiring to break open this shell of life.
And then it happened. A junior girl, a cheerleader in fact from the Druid Hills Devils, to load the metaphor bases, came over to Ralph and asked him to dance. Now, where I come from, this just doesn’t happen but that night, it did. Beth rocked Ralph’s world by dancing with him to Go Your Own Way…and Ralph did! Beth ably assisted him in his dance, moving him persuasively but without scaring the horses. It was a beautiful thing. Ralph’s smile was as wide as the road from Charleston to Savannah.
Lots of great things happening that week, but the thing I remember was the birth of Ralph, on a windswept night, to the rhythm of Fleetwood Mac urgings: Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.
Not a bad mantra by which to lean into life.
We all need people to help us make our way to the dance floor. We all, in different seasons of our life, particularly when we are transitioning into a new unfamiliar zone of being, need some help along the way.
Sometimes, we need a mid-wife, like Beth, who can take us by the hand, lead us onto the dance floor of life, and let us find out beat, our particular and peculiar rhythm. For me, that is a good description of what I do as a coach with people trying to find their way through a tough transition, or trying to rediscover the deeper Spirit that they lost along the way. It’s the thrill of my life assisting in the birth of the Spirit that is waiting in all people, just waiting to be born.
We are all Ralph at heart, wondering about ther world we find ourself in, waiting to be invited to the dance. That’s why people love this story about Ralph as they know that it whispers the promise of the new, and reminds us: don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.