Certain places have a way of cementing their significance in our lives when introduced during our formative years. For me, it is this hidden land off I-24, off the Pelham exit, up HWY 56 where I first experienced real love. You know, the kind of life-altering, soul-shifting love that, when experienced, redefines everything you’ve ever known about it previously? Real love. The first time I came to MTOP was the summer I was thirteen. My experiences working with the families of the Cumberland Mountains taught me about putting others before myself in the most basic of ways. For the next several summers, I came back to this special spot on the mountain and poured my heart into the work I was allowed to do and into the people I met. The love of Jesus became real for me. I saw the love of Christ come to life on that mountain, and a desire to get these experiences to translate into life in the real world down in the valley below was born within my spirit.
Fast forward a few years. I had the opportunity to serve on summer staff at MTOP for three years while I was in college. These summers revolutionized the way that I operate at an almost cellular level. The end of the summer would always leave me riding high and determined to carry what I had learned down the mountain and into everyday life back at home. Months would pass and life would knock me around a bit, and before long my thoughts would be consumed with making myself feel better. However, an egocentric life has a way of paralyzing any sort of service for others. There is no sacrifice when we are focused on ourselves and not on others. There is no room for Jesus to work. College graduation came and I entered the workforce, but rarely would a day go by when those summers did not cross my mind or come up in conversation with someone else who had experienced the magic of the mountain. Yet, I often found myself really struggling with the fact that I wasn’t fulfilling my end of the bargain. What was happening on the mountain was not translating in the day to day. I felt unable to make the kind of impact or incite the kind of change in the valley that I had spent years witnessing up on that mountain. What was I doing wrong? However, there is the problem.
The weekend of October 18-21 provided me with another opportunity to roll into Camp Cumberland Pines with a group of eighty-plus volunteers for a weekend of service. I was unprepared for the impact that this experience would have on my life. Really, I should know better than to think that I can’t be surprised by what the power of God can do to a heart. I’ve seen what He can do. My weekend at AIM was shaped by 1 John 3:16-17 which states, “This is how we’ve come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow believers, and not just be out for ourselves. If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears and you made it disappear.” Boom. That’s it. That is the moment. This scripture opened the door and revealed the missing piece for me. It is a shift in focus.
My MPT worked with a lady named Deborah over the course of the weekend. When we broke into our groups and were handed our notebooks with our jobsite information, we were all moved by Deborah’s story. The last few years had not been easy for her. The tragic loss of her husband in 2008 had been understandably difficult for her. It was apparent upon meeting Deborah that the biggest thing our group could do for her was to just be with her. Over the few days we were on the mountain, there was a lot of discussion of the Holy Spirit. Now, I don’t know about you, but that guy is tough to nail down and describe. Is it a feeling? Is it tangible? You get the idea. Our group was really lucky to be able to do some nice things around Mrs. D’s house that weekend. We painted a little. We defrosted a freezer, which I might add made us question our positions on global warming. This ice was thick. We put in some new flooring in her living room. All of these things were great and we were thrilled to do as many tasks as possible in the short amount of time we were given. But the best parts of our time together took place in those quiet moments of prayer, devotion, and conversation, when it became increasingly clear that something much bigger than ourselves was working amongst us. The Holy Spirit was present and he was creating a stir within all of our hearts to show us what it means to love. It didn’t matter that we had only known each other or Mrs. D for a matter of days. When our time together was finished, we knew that we had been a part of something really remarkable. We all sacrificed a little of our time and energy over that weekend, but what allowed Jesus to come in and work was the fact that we all, including Mrs. D, allowed that part of ourselves that we sometimes let stand back on the outskirts of life to come out and take action. We loved. We worshipped. We sacrificed. We served. All of us. When we open ourselves up to the possibility that we each carry something that is of value, to someone, it is really powerful to see what the Lord can do. Synergy is a real thing, and I know that the sum was truly greater than its parts that weekend. The Holy Spirit showed us how to love by sacrificing for another, physically and emotionally. We all rolled up our emotional sleeves and got our hands dirty.
So, how do I take the magic of the mountain down to the valley below? How do I continue to be a conduit of grace and love for Jesus? It is a moment by moment choice to take every situation and every interaction and pump it full of the love of Jesus by sacrificing of myself in some way. In every way. If someone is in need and I have something to offer, I have to use that as an opportunity to serve. The moment to serve someone is not hidden behind some big picture, grand vision, or massive project that I have to wrap my brain and heart around first. It is in these small interactions with others where I am given endless opportunities to serve and to share the love of Jesus. That is how to bring the mountain down into the valley. That is real love. We are called to live and love sacrificially just as Christ did for us. Real magic happens when the focus shifts to acknowledge the needs of others before our own and we allow Jesus to work.
Stephanie Holland, Crievewood UMC