Branson, Missouri.

Where thousands of fanny-packed tourists flock from March to December to Ride the Ducks and watch Presley’s Country Jubilee. Where cars move at 15 miles per hour down the one-lane-each-way Strip all day and night. Where go-cart tracks and putt-putt courses are a dime a dozen, and Old-Time photos are ready for the taking. Where the skyline boasts the world’s largest patriot chicken, a three-story model of the Titanic and King Kong’s backside.

Branson, Missouri. Where I spent the best eight months of my life.

If, in 1997 when my family took our first vacation to Branson, you’d told that I’d live there in 2012, I would have likely done a dance for joy. But if you’d told me a year ago, I would have laughed in disbelief. In fact, I’m still laughing. Who would have ever thought I’d temporarily call a fake tropical island in the middle of Branson, Missouri, “home”? And I even have a local-discount card to prove it! Now “B-Vegas,” as my friends often affectionately call it, will always and forever hold a very special (and humorous) place in my heart.

How did I get to Branson? And what in the world was I doing there? If you’ve followed my blog at all for the last year, you know the answer. But in case you stumbled across this post during a stroll through cyberspace, I’ll explain. Branson isn’t just the location of the Hollywood Wax Museum and Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. Since 1926, it’s also been the home of Kanakuk Kamps and, since 2001, the Kanakuk Institute. The former brought me to Branson for the summer; the latter kept me there all year.

You see, last April I was notified in a very small envelope that I had not been chosen for the Fulbright ETA program. Disappointed, I was forced to turn to my Plan B. But as far as my heart was concerned, this should have been Plan ZZ. Although I had told people I would go to the Kanakuk Institute if I didn’t receive the Fulbright, in my heart I wanted nothing to do with it. Branson couldn’t have been farther from Berlin.. My aspirations were European, not Hillbilly-an. I wanted to be the middle of Germany, not the middle of nowhere. And I certainly did not want to be in Branson, Missouri.

Yep…. Enough said.

Anyway, I spent last summer working at K-Seven, my home base in the Kanakuk world. Here God slowly, patiently, and completely changed my heart. Through conversations with fellow staffers, Institute directors and alumni, and my family, I began to realize what I knew deep down all along: God was calling me to the Kanakuk Institute, and that’s exactly where I needed to be.

So on September 10th, I made the four-hour drive to Branson in my laden red Volvo. Having grown up with Kanakuk, I knew a lot about the Institute and had many friends graduate from it. So naturally, I had expectations. But I had no idea how much the Lord would exceed them.

This year was unbelievable. To use contemporary slang, it rocked my face and blew my socks off. As I sit here trying to capture it in a single blog post, I realize that it’s impossible. There’s too much to say, too much to remember, too much to share. Simply put, it can’t be done. Still, like Custer taking his fated last stand, I at least have to try. (cue dramatic music here)

Okay, that was a bit melodramatic. What I mean to say is that I’m going to do my best to recap this year for you along with a few larger lessons. However, it’s unrealistic to fit it all and keep this to a reasonable length. So please expect more Insti-posts in the future. J Having said that, let’s get started.

The year began in a whirlwind, with two weeks of non-stop action, serving and fun. Together, we camped in the rain and helped rebuild tornado-ravaged Joplin. Dressed in matching green t-shirts, we gave Gatorade to thirsty athletes competing in the Branson Half-Iron Man. We raced to the Branson sights for a photo scavenger hunt and then played sand volleyball at Table Rock Lake’s Moonshine Beach. In a Springfield cemetery, we pondered our own temporality as we wrote vision statements for our lives. And that was all before the year actually started! Now do you see why I need more posts? 🙂

At first glance, the last eight months seem lost in a blur of dinner duties, youth group meetings, daily classes, Ultimate Frisbee games, study sessions at Panera, pool horse, and random dance parties. However, as I look deeper, a few major themes emerge. Like James Marshall at Sutter’s Mill, I will sift the flakes of gold from the silt…

Scratch that! The year was chock full of solid gold bricks. Now I’ll pull out three nuggets of platinum for your pondering pleasure. Here they are:

1. No Riding Solo: Jesus didn’t call us to be “lone rangers,” fading into the sunset on our trusty steeds (Hi ho, Silver!) On the contrary, He created us to live in community with other believers. Not only does this hold us accountable and to help us grow, but it also enables us to demonstrate His unfailing love to a lost and broken world. It’s no coincidence then that He tells His disciples in John 13:34-35, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” How can we show that the world that we love one another if we aren’t together? Moreover, iron can’t sharpen iron from a distance. When believers commit to Christ by actively and unconditionally loving one another, the rest of the world can’t help but be amazed by—and attracted to—it.  Like fish were made for water, so we are made for community. For too long, though, I preferred to flop on the deck by myself, not realizing that my gills were gasping. But now that I have been immersed in Christian community, I never want to be a “fish out of water” again.

2. Pass it On:  In His last words to His followers, Jesus instructed them to “go and make disciples… teaching them to obey all I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Even though I’d read those words dozens of times, I’m embarrassed to say that, until this year, making disciples was at the bottom of my priority list. It fell somewhere between “organize my sock drawer” and “learn Japanese.” This was never a conscience decision; it was a natural result of my misunderstanding of discipleship. Before, I thought discipleship was a spiritual gift that God had forgotten to put under my tree. But now, after working with the “best and brightest” students at First Baptist Forsyth and having my dear friend Joy disciple me, I finally grasp what discipleship is all about. When Jesus tells us to disciple and teach others, He isn’t asking us to do the impossible. Instead, He simply wants us to come alongside and guide them through life, not based on our own ability, but solely on His grace. In short, Jesus has taught us, so we could teach others. He has equipped us with special experiences and unique personalities, so we can connect with and encourage other believers in their relationships with Him. Paul, the world’s greatest missionary, did this for Timothy. In his final letter to Timothy, he exhorts him to do the same, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Timothy 2:2) When we disciple others, we also reap the benefits; through teaching the truth, we come to richer, fuller understanding of it.

3. The Gospel is For Me: We are all broken, sinful human beings, incapable of saving ourselves. Yet a loving and merciful God sent His only Son, God-made-flesh, to earth to live a sinless life and die in our place. Through His sacrifice, we can be redeemed (bought back) by God, and through Him, we can be made completely new. This is fully, completely, 100%-ly from His grace, not based on our merit or accomplishments. This is the message of the Gospel; this is the hope that we can have in Jesus Christ. Over and over again at the Institute, God gently, yet persistently brought me back to this truth. Though I was a Christian, I tried to earn God’s love for too many years, desperately hoping to make Him happy… and winding up miserable every time I fell short. I saw God as a holy Being I could never hope to please, who loved me but didn’t necessarily like me. I felt as if I was always one misstep away from making Him angry at me—or worse—from disappointing Him. Though Jesus had technically set me free, I remained a slave to my own perfectionism, shackled to the impossible ideal of being “good enough.” But try as I might, I could never escape my own humanity, and my best-intended efforts were doomed to failure. Exhausted and broken, I came to the Kanakuk Institute. Here amongst the artificial palm trees, God not only opened my eyes to my chains, but He set me free from them. Now I constantly remind myself of the truth of His Gospel, that Jesus loves me and died for me not so I could be perfect, but that so I could be His. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, I’m clothed with His righteousness. Even though I stumble and fall, I’m still God’s daughter, and He’s using my failures and brokenness to make me more like Him.  This message gives life, and I want everyone to know it.

To say this year was amazing would be a gross understatement. Even as I write this blog, I’m struck by the overwhelming realization that this year wasn’t an isolated experience, but one that will continue to inform us forever. This year will act as a wellspring to which we return for encouragement and a touchstone after which we model and by which we test the rest of our lives. But most importantly, our eight months at the Kanakuk Institute is our launch pad, from which God sends us each out to fulfill His calling for us in the world. We know our beginnings, but only He knows where we’ll all land. Maybe in Texas. Maybe in Africa. Maybe in Germany.

Maybe even in Branson, Missouri. 😉



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