After 14 summers of our team going out for summer tours — weeks on end of location after location and program upon program — as special as each one is, they tend to run together a little bit. Certain events stick out, of course, but the summers as a whole somewhat get lumped together into that general category of “Life History.”
But this summer was different.
The following report is designed to give you a more detailed account of the events of the summer of 2019 to bring praise and glory to Christ. It’s not exhaustive, and it really is more about our personal lives than about the material we were sharing just because we are trying to give glory to the Lord for what He did in our personal lives.
In many ways, our lives are no different from anyone else’s. We all have jobs to do, families to care for, hobbies we enjoy and struggles along the way. So far we are the same. But we are all different, too. Every life is unique and every season of life is unique. Certainly, our assignment from the Lord to work in a ministry to children using puppetry to share the Gospel and traveling in a caravan of bus-with-equipment trailer and van-with-travel-trailer is unique. But (in general) we love it!
It should probably first be said that the spring of 2019 was very tiring. A lot of work had been done both within the sphere of the ministry and in our personal lives, and the looming summer season, albeit representing a looming deadline, was viewed as a welcome change of pace. This is pretty common. Although the summers are very busy, filled with travel and daily programs, they are also a lot of fun and afford us time for family that we don’t have in the same way in any other time of year. Swimming, cookouts, games, hikes, new hobbies, nighttime movies and just hanging out are anticipated as part of the fun that we add on to our personal lives alongside the fun of ministry itself. Because the spring of 2019 was so particularly exhausting, the anticipation of summer had come to a fevered pitch.
However, things did not go as planned and very quickly we realized that, although we are accustomed to “rolling with the punches,” the “punches” we were receiving had a feeling in their voracity not of simple everyday life, but of something more insidious, more personal and more purposeful. It felt like spiritual warfare. Ephesians 6:12, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Why this summer?
Evil doesn’t really need a reason. Evil is just evil. But here are a couple thoughts as to why. Last summer (2018) had its own challenges, but had a very different feel. This isn’t to say that there wasn’t spiritual warfare going on, just that the “heat” was “hotter” in 2019. Our previous series was entitled Psalm Springs, and was an exposition of Psalm 23 and the life of David. That series always leaves us feeling encouraged by the Great Shepherd with the constant reminders of His love and care. This year’s series is entitled Truth Travelers and is a topical exploration of basic, fundamental truths of life as seen through the pages of God’s Word. In a nutshell, it’s apologetics for kids. To compare the two years is to compare defense and offense. Both things are there to help you win the game (our game being to give the Gospel), but the plays are very different. Or, to describe it differently, Psalm Springs is a shield while Truth Travelers is a sword. One thing we can know for certain: Satan hates truth. He is a deceiver — the father of lies — and when our series pointedly attacked his lies by loudly proclaiming and defending truths such as “there is only one God” and “there is a right and a wrong,” it was bringing the fight right to Satan’s doorstep.
But before we get to the details of the battle, let’s get one thing straight: Greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world. God was never absent, never out of control and never surprised. He worked His will in our lives and in this summer, and (spoiler alert) He was glorified in the end! Of course, that’s easy to say now….
Week 1: HisAbility at Camp Barakel
This week is a favorite with us as it has been for the generations of GHH teams before us. HisAbility is a week of camp for special needs adults. These folks are such precious souls, full of life and encouragement. The puppets are a grand favorite with them and a large mascot puppet named Barney (made decades ago by our founder Bob Friedl) has lived in residence at Camp Barakel for exclusive use at HisAbility week. (Incidentally, Barney hitched a ride home with us this year, as he needs to visit our shop for a much-needed makeover!)
The very first chapel of the summer involves Juli and Chris telling the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. It’s an exciting retelling with Juli narrating and Chris playing all of the characters. Part way through, the power goes out. Being it is daytime, we can still see, and Juli and Chris just project louder to make up for the loss of the microphones. No big deal. However, it is still disappointing, because we know that at the end of the story, when Elijah prays and God sends fire to consume the sacrifice, we won’t be able to use our striking sound effect of a deafening lightning strike to audibly bring that awesome moment to life. However, Nicole, sits backstage at the soundboard, keeping alert just in case the power should return. She prays, “Lord, I know it’s just a simple little sound effect that’s not really important, but it sure would be cool if You let the power come back on in time for that moment!” And wouldn’t you know it? At the end of the prayer of Elijah, as the word “Amen” leaves Chris’ lips, the lights FLASH on and the alert Nicole hits the button to unleash the sound effect that reminds us of God’s power. And it is powerful! It’s as if God is reminding us at the very beginning of the summer, “You see that God you are reading about in the pages of Scripture? That’s me. I’m still here, I’m the same as I was then, and just like then, I am in charge.”
It is even truer than we initially know.
Several miles away, in the nearby town of Fairview, an accident involving a semi truck (in which no one was injured) results in that truck plowing right IN to a local grocery store! The son of a camp staff member was working in the building when he heard a telltale noise and he turned and instinctively ran as the huge truck came right through the wall behind him! This, of course, is what knocked out the power. The power at the camp came back on when generators were employed.
Think of that. The God of the Universe used a very unusual accident (in which He spared lives) to work at precisely the right moment, knowing that Juli and Chris would be telling a story of His greatness. He knew the pacing of speech and orchestrated it in just such a way that the power needed to facilitate a flash of light and the big sound effect would be suddenly available again at the very moment it was needed. He is a God on time! This event helped to shape our view of the whole summer and affirmed what we already knew to be true and were teaching; There is only one God and He’s in control!
An important note that should be mentioned was the fact that a sickness (like a vicious summer cold) was moving through the camp staff. By the end of the week, Chris begins to exhibit symptoms.
Week 2: Camp Selah
GHH has partnered with this camp for decades. There is an ease about going to a place where you already know the routine.
Early in the week, the sickness has affected Chris seriously. We had seen the symptoms of others who had had the sickness; fever, extremely sore throat, congestion and a terrible, lingering cough. But Chris is exhibiting an additional symptom. He is losing his voice. For us, puppetry involves a great deal of voice acting. We do most of our material live in every sense, including the voicing. Our voices are what deliver the message, so a healthy voice is very important. In addition, Chris does all of the teaching in front of the puppet stage. The rest of the team scramble to recast all of the puppet sketches (no small task, as there can be as many as 30 in any given week of presentations) with Nicole picking up most of Chris’ slack and trying her best at a variety of men’s voices. He never loses his voice completely, but is reduced to murmuring softly into a microphone which is working overtime! For several days, Chris’ day consists of summoning enough energy to do the morning chapel, and then going to bed until it is time for evening chapel.
Mid week, Nicole realizes that she didn’t pack an important puppet for on the bible stores! So, Juli and Nicole make an emergency trip from the camp to our office (a 3 hr round trip drive) to retrieve what has been accidentally left behind.
But what wouldn’t we give to see moments like the one we saw this week. A little boy approached “Uncle” Chris and says, “Wanna hear the best thing ever?” “What is it?” says Uncle Chris. “I need to tell you in your ear!” Chris bends down to receive the “best thing” news and hears, through cupped hands trumpeting into his ear in no quiet tones, “God saved me! Isn’t that the best news you ever heard?!?” And Chris stands up with a welling of thankful praise in his heart and says sincerely, “Yes. That is the best news ever!”
Week 3: Camp Selah
A second week at Camp Selah brings a new batch of kids, and the programs start over again from the beginning.
Now Nicole is sick, like Chris had been, and Chris himself is still not 100%. Parts are switched around again. It is nice that Kylie and Elliana are old enough to be helpful both with their baby sisters and with puppet responsibilities. They fill in where needed and do a great job. By the end of the week, Juli’s throat is beginning to be very sore.
This spring and early summer has seen an unusual amount of rain, and as we near the end of our time here at Camp Selah, there is some concern that we will not be able to leave. Juli and Nicole’s trailer sank into the ground when it was first parked and on another occasion the van got stuck and needed to be pulled out of the rut it had created on very soft ground. If the rain continues and the ground doesn’t dry out sufficiently, we are in jeopardy of not being able to drive out of our parking spots. But thankfully, we don’t have any issues when it comes time to leave.
Over the time we have been at Camp Selah, Chris has received word of two different friends who have gone home to glory. One specifically asked if Chris could play the piano at his funeral, but try as he might, Chris cannot find a way to attend either funeral.
Week 4: Camp Barakel
Kylie has gotten sick over the weekend. She and Elliana are scheduled to be campers this week, but her severely sore throat and fever on the eve of camp beginning put that possibility in doubt. Mom and Dad assure her that if Jesus wants her to go, she will be well enough to go. Through many tears, we pray for a miracle (it would need to be God’s intervention, since experience doesn’t suggest she will be better by morning) and we give it to God. In the morning, Kylie is MUCH better and her fever has disappeared! She gets to be a camper after all! It is an additional comfort to know that, unlike most kids, Kylie’s parents are there at the camp if she should need to come home. She never does!
By the second half of this week, Juli is really sick with worsening symptoms. Once again, we have reassigned puppet responsibilities. On Friday, she finds a doctor within a couple hours of this rather remote camp. With her voice now completely gone, she is prescribed to be on COMPLETE vocal rest — not even whispering — for AT LEAST a week. It is also determined that the increasingly intense pain she is experiencing is a double ear infection with one eardrum that has actually burst. This eardrum will not heal completely for the rest of the summer and into the fall.
It is worth pointing out that the symptom of losing the voice is one that we found to be unique to us. We saw a lot of people struggle with this same illness which was accompanied with fever, sore throat, congestion and fatigue, but never a lost voice. It is one of the things that clues us in to the spiritual warfare component of our getting sick. We were attacked where Satan believes it will hamper us the most. But all praise to Jesus, we never miss a program!
Our programs at Barakel engender a great deal of good conversation with the campers. The truths of God made everything for His glory and There is a right and wrong illustrated through the story of Adam and Eve and the fall trigger a lot of very deep and spiritually probing questions. In our experience, kids ask questions second to none for their insightful importance. Thankfully, we have the scriptures to give us answers!
On Sunday, Chris gets to preach at the joint Sunday service of both camps (Barakel runs two camps simultaneously) and addresses one question we have heard multiple times, “How do we know the Bible is true?” His message ends with a challenge to make a decision.
By the end of the week, one of our bigger fears is realized and the toddlers, Gwen and Claire (3 and 2) are sick.
Week 5: Camp Barakel
A second week of summer camp at Barakel brings another batch of campers! Kylie and Elliana are back with us in the bus now, full of stories of their grand times as campers last week. We are thankful for the opportunity they have to just be kids with other kids for a week. We are also thankful for God’s Helping Hands as an organization that recognizes this value and gifts this week of camp to our girls.
Camp Barakel is the oldest partner organization of God’s Helping Hands, dating back to the very beginning of GHH in 1980 and the friendship of our two founders, Barakel’s “Uncle” Johnny and our own “Uncle” Bob. This makes 2019 the 40th year of ministry partnership of these ministries!
Although Juli is still working alongside us, we don’t have the benefit of her voice (and therefore most of her puppetry). Major adjustments are in order. We literally do not hear her voice for the entire week at all, anywhere. Sometimes she writes, sometimes she types, sometimes she pantomimes. She even has her phone speak the words she types at times. It is, admittedly, a little entertaining, although it confuses the toddlers why Juli won’t speak to them!
Here we are in week 5 of our travels and already we are feeling the effects of less-than-restful sleep. This fact intensifies as the toddlers continue to struggle with this illness.
There is (and has been) very little swimming. However there IS a little bit, which is fun, but a subsequent bacterial infection (experienced by several of us, but in greatest measure by Nicole and Kylie) is blamed upon these few excursions. This is unusual, as we have swam in this lake often and for many years. One wonders if so much rain for weeks has affected lake waters…
When the week ends, and the day comes to move to our next location, we find that we have an unexpected delay. The batteries of the bus have gone dead and, because of their size and amperage, they can’t be as easily jumped. After much delay, we discover that the camp has a charger sufficient for our need, and we are able to start the bus. The bus will need new batteries when we get to our next location.
On a positive note, the bus generator is working great. For two years previous, it has been notorious for inexplicably stopping. But this year, and for no apparent reason, it runs perfectly every time it is used ALL SUMMER LONG!
Week 6: Alton Bible Church
The Family Vacation Bible School at Alton Bible Church is one of the highlights of our summer. Such fun people who are also intent on learning about and worshiping the Lord! Some of the most vigorous Bible Drills happen here!
Juli’s voice has grown stronger and she is able to ease her way back into some parts.
In added fun, the teams work nightly on “bribing” Uncle Chris for extra points with all manner of goodies. It’s all in good fun, and we recognize it as another way they have found to love on us.
We get an opportunity to visit a zoo this week! Lots of fun, but by the end of the afternoon, everyone is quite worn out. Kylie in particular continues struggling with a bacterial infection (although it is still undiagnosed at this point.)
One afternoon is given to filming a short film with our puppets at a firehouse, talking with a fireman. What an encouragement this hero (who is also a believer) is! And he is a natural at interacting with puppets on camera!
Claire has recovered from being sick. We think Gwen is too, but again her fever has spiked and her symptoms have redoubled. She often coughs to the point of throwing up and the nights are very long. She is very lethargic much of the time and is not herself. Instead of getting better, she gets worse again.
Week 7: Pleasant Valley Bible Camp
Our week at Pleasant Valley is a fruitful one. We aren’t always privileged to see salvations — especially at camps where the person a child talks with is often their camp counselor — but this week we are made aware of several salvations! Praise the Lord!
This week may be the first week of the summer when the programs run the way they were written with all of us filling our own parts!
Another first for this week: Juli’s mom offers to come to the camp and watch the children so the four adults can go with Juli’s dad to see a movie in a small nearby town. Chris, Amber, Juli and Nicole jump at the chance. Usually by this time in the summer, many games have been played and many movies have been enjoyed. But almost none of that has been possible as we’ve all been dealing with different circumstances. So, we find a Groupon deal for cheap tickets and popcorn, and go to a movie. Almost exactly halfway through the movie, the projector in the theater dies, and we are forced to go home (with a refund) not knowing how it ended! We all laugh at the huge irony of it all, but still feel very discouraged. We know a movie is a little insignificant thing, and in and of itself unimportant, but the feeling is, “Wow. We can’t catch a break!” Sometimes Satan attacks with big things, sometimes he’s just like an annoying biting fly that just harangues you.
We are blessed with the chance to pick many pounds of cherries — an annual favorite!
On Saturday we stay an additional day at Pleasant Valley because of dangerous winds. This proves to be a good decision as we would have certainly encountered dangerous weather. Instead of traveling, we spend the day with Juli’s parents. They kindly let us crash at their house like a bunch of college students at home for the weekend. We lay around doing almost nothing. They let us do our laundry and at the end of the day they buy us pizza. It’s great!
We travel all day Sunday to our next destination and set everything up the same day to be ready to start a VBS in the morning.
Week 8: Calvary Bible Church of Kalamazoo
This is a VERY busy week! Our Vacation Bible School is in the morning and we enjoy this enthusiastic group of children. They are particularly good at participation in daily themes such as “Antique Day” in which they (with permission) bring in old things for points and as a show-and-tell. We see everything from a Civil War Era knife to cassette tapes. (Yep, those are “antiques” now!)
Most of our afternoons (and evenings) are spent at our nearby office where we work on painting and decoration a parade float Jeff has built for use next week. Nicole is also working hard with our IT gal, Katie, to finish the new website so it and our new YouTube page can be launched next week.
On Wednesday, Chris gives the Gospel presentation and invitation as he always does. He feels very dissatisfied with his presentation as a whole, wondering if he spoke the truth clearly enough. We are all wonderfully surprised when 3 children accept the Lord as Savior! That number will grow to 6 by the end of the week. God uses it as a reminder (especially to Chris) that salvation is a matter of the heart and is accomplished through the quickening power of the Holy Spirit — not through a slick presentation! Zechariah 4:6, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.”
Kylie continues to struggle with what we have previously thought to be a U.T.I. and Gwen continues to be sick with a racking cough. It’s been weeks now. Fortunately, we are able to get an appointment for both while we are within driving distance.
All summer we have been teaching about the power of God, the love of God and faithfulness of God. Gwen is a bright 3 year old who hasn’t, as far as we know, accepted Jesus as Savior yet. Chris and Amber pray often with Gwen assuring her that Jesus has the power to heal her if He will. They beg God to show His power — not just for Gwen’t physical healing, but as a manifestation of His existence to this little girl.
Because of all of the many things already mentioned, everyone is very tired. Chris and Amber hit a low point in the realization that Satan has found their “soft spot” — attacking their little girls physically. There have been many tears as Chris and Amber have cried out to the Lord on behalf of Gwen. Although these circumstances are not comparable to Job, he does come to mind, and we determine that we will continue trusting Him even when we are so exhausted and beset on every side and afraid.
A timely appointment reveals that Kylie has a bacterial infection and Gwen is suffering from a leaky gut. This condition has weakened her immune system preventing her body from fighting the illness she contracted now weeks ago. Both are prescribed supplements to assist their body’s own immune systems and Chris and Amber adjust Gwen’s diet as an assist and precaution. A noticeable positive change occurs within a couple days!
Special Weekend: South Boston Bible Church Community Festival
We have an extra opportunity to share the Gospel at South Boston Bible Church. Their community outreach is a carnival of games and events held at their church. Kylie and Elli enjoy taking their little sisters Gwen and Claire around to the various carnival games. Gwen hits the target of the dunk tank all by herself! Good weather enables us to set up our puppet stage in the open air. It is a breezy day, but we secure our scripts behind stage so they don’t blow around. When the time comes for our program, Chris steps from behind the stage to begin, and suddenly a might torrent of wind begins to blow! Chris catches a speaker as it and its stand blows over! The stage itself begins to move threateningly and men from the church leap up to hold it down so we can continue the program. As usual, when we set up everything, we had tested and calibrated our sound system, but now, as we begin, it quickly becomes obvious that our sound is not working! This is serious, as much of the presentation we are set up to give relies heavily on sound effects to move the story forward and, of course, our songs need it. After a few embarrassing minutes, Chris is forced to stop the program and apologize to the crowd, craving their indulgence while we try to fix the problem. But no matter what Juli and Chris do, they can’t fix it. Scrambling, we determine what is left to us that can be presented and we present those few things. The Gospel is still there and the people are appreciative, but we are terribly embarrassed. Never in 14 years have we had an experience quite like it with such humbling results. We apologize profusely and are shown much grace. As we pack up to leave, Chris begins to talk with an old friend at this church, Paul Gess. It was Paul’s suggestion that brought us here in the first place. A seasoned missionary of many decades, this gentle man has the gift of encouragement. Chris begins to give him an overview of the summer and the spiritual warfare we’ve encountered in its various forms concluding with the situation Paul had just witnessed. His response is that of a man who has walked with the Lord long and has learned much. He smiles broadly and says just one word: “Awesome!” He’s right and we know it. Opposition isn’t fun, but it at least means that there is something Satan wants to oppose! We leave feeling a little humiliated but rejoicing in what God did accomplish. The Gospel still went out! Isaiah 55:11, “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Maybe we looked like fools, but as the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 4:10, “We are fools for Christ's sake.”
Week 9: Harbor Days in Elk Rapids with the Elk Rapids Bible Church
We travel to Juli’s parents’ house on the Rapid River where we will stay for the next two weeks of ministry. Their home is a safe haven for us all. They are Grandma and Grandpa to the girls and they delight in spoiling us all. (We delight in it too!)
We have no responsibilities for a couple of days which is very healing.
We try to go to the beach of Lake Michigan for a much desired beach day, but an unexpected turn of the weather turns us away.
On Wednesday night we begin our work with the Elk Rapids Bible Church. For years, we have been working alongside them as they reach out to their community during the local festival known as Harbor Days. Wednesday night is a kick-off to the festival with the downtown main street filled with activities and vendors. The church has rented an inflatable attraction and is giving away a free craft/toy along with Bibles and Christian materials. We begin making balloon animals to give away. Balloon animals always attract an instant crowd of children. They are a great attention grabber. But within five minutes we are stopped by a festival official who has received a complaint from another vendor. It seems there is a vendor selling balloons (very different from the ones we are giving away) and although balloons were believed to be a part of the church’s approved application, we opt to stop the balloon portion of the church’s booth rather than risk bringing reproach on the name of the church or Christ. The official (who is very frazzled to begin with) is very thankful. We are disappointed, and need to turn kids away without balloon animals, but believe it is the right decision. To add to the disappointment of the evening, we are made aware from Katie, our IT gal, that even though the new website is ready to be launched, it won’t be available for public online viewing