My Taste of Heaven - Amber Carter
When you stop for a moment and imagine what worshipping God in Heaven will look, sound, or feel like, what do you imagine? Do you imagine you are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with family members that you have not seen in years? Do you see the person(s) that you led to Christ but lost touch with?
I see myself standing next to the repentant criminal that hung next to Jesus on the cross.
This was not always how I imagined heaven. My view has changed as I have enjoyed the privilege of being a part of the planning team for an ever-growing regional women's retreat in the Midwest. I also have the privilege of seeing the regional men's conference through testimonies, videos and photos and it is just as heavenly. Each year, over 350 men and women attend our regional retreats. The women gather each spring and the men each fall. Both weekends are completely different and uniquely similar at the same time.
When they arrive on a Friday evening and the calm and quiet of MSR Camp & Retreat Center is transformed. At the women's retreat, Martha's loud giggle can be heard for miles over the Flint Hills of Kansas and a tight hug from Vicki quickly erases a year of not being able to see her in person. Pastor Odum's (pictured above) enthusiasm upon arriving at Men's Conference with a busload of men from Topeka starts to spread and the energy level steadily climbs.
Vicki has faithfully made the seven-hour drive from St. Louis to the retreat alone for the past two years. She is the legal guardian of her three grandchildren, so she does not find much time for herself. At the retreat, she connected with women that share her same struggles of living in an inner city neighborhood filled with crime. But she also shares that "little light of mine" that burns so bright in a dark world. She left the retreat filled and ready to take on all that God has given her.
Pastor Odum enjoyed watching his men bond with each other and with the men from other Midwest churches while they were "out in the middle of nowhere." Retreats are a chance for men to get away from the everyday life and just be with their Brothers. Pastor Odum's church in Topeka brought three men their first year. They came back with eleven the next! He is already looking forward to the October conference this year because he knows it will, once again, be "off the chain!"
My little taste of heaven comes when everyone arrives in the meeting hall and the band begins to play. The chatter turns into singing and suddenly, we are all the same. The preacher's wife stands shoulder-to-shoulder with a woman who was only recently released from jail where she met Jesus. The woman who spent a lifetime hiding her shame and guilt of a life of drugs and crime stands shoulder-to-shoulder with a woman that came out of that life and now has a rehabilitation center and resources to share. The men's conference is no different. The man that came reluctantly because he did not want to take time off from his well-paying job stands shoulder-to-shoulder with a man that has been out of work for a year and is living in the rescue mission. The man who presents himself stronger than he really feels finds strength in a brotherhood of believers that allows him to put it all at the feet of Jesus.
When Jesus hung on that cross—shouldering all my sin and rejected from his Father—he still had eternity in mind. He extended his grace to a man that so desperately needed it. Our Midwest Regional Men's and Women's Conferences and Retreats are just that, a taste of eternity. So we can all go back and fight the good fight in a dark world.
It is not just my imagination that sees these 350 men and women standing strong together, knowing they are empowered to fight the battle of darkness through the strength of a mighty God. I have seen it with my own eyes. This is real. Palpable. Tangible.
Amber Carter leads the Communication Team for the Midwest Region and assists in the Wichita hospitality ministry.
Familiar Faces - Amie Busenitz
What a blessing to see many familiar faces during the summer camp season at Morning Star Ranch! It is great to follow up with repeat guests. We are privileged to have family and friends volunteer to serve with us.
Many familiar faces came for family camp in June. MSR hosted three weekends of family camps for urban churches located in Wichita. Christ the Victor, La Iglesia de Cristo Victorioso (ICV), Restored Community Church, and Lighthouse Community Church attended. I first met many of the people when they came for the men's conference, for the Urban Church Association leaders retreat, or the women's retreat. Since the purpose of those events was to equip urban leaders to shepherd the people of God in their own communities, it was especially meaningful to see those leaders return with their churches and their families. Each weekend included powerful teaching from the Word of God, joyful worship music, and meaningful fellowship. Families enjoyed refreshing times of swimming in the pool, hiking to the cross, playing a variety of games, eating hearty food, and roasting s'mores at the campfire. I enjoy encouraging the urban churches by cooking meals for the family camps.
More familiar faces and many new faces will arrive for elementary age summer camp July 6-10 and middle school camp July 13-17. Through the theme, Called Out, campers will be challenged to follow Abraham's example of faith and obedience. The camp director and speaker will come from Topeka through a partnership with another urban ministry. I look forward to teaching a few cooking elective classes. My days will be busy preparing food.
Volunteers are the other familiar faces that help make this ministry possible. I enjoy working with friends and family who come to serve for a meal, a day, or a weekend. Some come to help clean between groups and do yard work. I thank the Lord for what He is doing in the lives of those who come to MSR, and I pray that He will bring them back again.
Prison Revival - Matt Penner
An evening of revival and prayer at a local prison doesn't just happen. For days, weeks, months, and even years, God had been laying the groundwork led to this hot and windy night. Two years ago, The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI) began in the Hutchinson Correctional Facility with nine students. Around that same time, God was placing a call for prayer and revival on my heart. Not long after that, Matt Thomas, a man with a powerful testimony from his own time behind bars, became a World Impact ministry partner. Matt now runs a ministry called Firm Foundations for ex-offenders. All of this—along with two TUMI students, Abe and Randy, who were transferred to the East Unit—led to this night in the yard of their East Unit where we hosted the revival. With a team of 20 volunteers from World Impact and ministry partners of Firm Foundations, we went into the prison to partner with Abe, Randy and their church inside the walls.
We quickly set up the sound system, cookies, and soda. We didn't know how many inmates would attend, so we optimistically prepared for all 500 men. When they were released to the yard, 100 inmates were eager to greet us and drink the cold Pepsi on such a hot afternoon. In the yard where we met were was a group of Asatru and Wiccans gathering for their worship and men actively working out. But we were confident that the Lord's presence was with us and the distractions would be silenced. We even saw some of the men who were working out walk up to the fence and listen.
After some worship led by Ben Wray and my wife Angie, we had two dynamic testimonies from Abe and Randy. Abe's story in particular touched me. He initially was locked up around the age of 18. He spent his first 15 years of incarceration on the run from the Lord, but when he finally hit rock bottom, the Lord spoke to him: "Will you give me another chance?" When he heard the Lord's voice, Abe finally surrendered and was radically changed.
This led to a clear Gospel presentation while incorporating his testimony from Matt Thomas. During the altar call, a group of 20 to 30 men came forward either to receive Christ or rededicate their lives to the Lord. As they circled up, praying arm in arm, Abe took the lead and shared more about following Jesus.
Following a second message from Coach Larry Allen, we came together for a time of prayer. This time, about 40 inmates locked arms and we led them in prayer of repentance and forgiveness. Men cried out to the Lord with tears and the desire to be set free. The presence of God was so clear and powerful!
As we said goodbye, I could see smiles of joy all around. One inmate told me that this time was the happiest he had ever been in his whole life. My lasting memory from this evening was a few of the inmates singing "I Can Only Imagine" during worship. The reality is that these guys live in a dark place and carry so many burdens. Yet, for that night, they were able to experience the presence of God in a tangible way. It was a definite foretaste of heaven.
A total of 125 people (including volunteers) attended the prison revival night. We drank around 450 cans of soda. Thirteen inmates prayed to receive Christ for the first time and another 20 rededicated their lives. Our next steps are to work on following up with these new believers.
Please pray that the seed of the Gospel would grow deep in their lives. Pray that this will be the start of more outreaches and revivals in our cities and prisons. Amen!
Matt Penner is World Impact's National Prayer Director.