57° N, 25° E. Wedged between the wild waters of the Baltic Sea to the west and the massive nation of Russia to the east, there lies a small, rugged country officially called the Republic of Latvia. A nation with a rich cultural history, refined and strengthened through years of foreign occupation, and populated with unique and wonderful people, each with their own story to tell; though few Americans have ever heard of Latvia, and even fewer could point it out on a map, Latvia is an incredible place, filled with incredible people, and God is truly working in this nation.
This summer, I had the incredible opportunity to be part of a team of 12—9 high school students and 3 adults—and to travel to Latvia, where we partnered with a local Latvian church to put on a week-long, music-themed summer camp for Latvian youth. We were on a mission, seeking to live out the Great Commission, to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to all nations. But although we journeyed to Latvia to teach others about music and about God, I learned more from the Latvians than I could ever teach them. The time we spent with the Latvian leaders and campers taught me lessons that I will never forget; lessons that I believe every one of us needs to learn.
1. Music Has Power
I have always loved music. But living in a world filled with music, constantly playing all around me, somehow I begin to take it for granted. Even as I myself study and teach musical instruments, the power of music is often somehow lost on me. But during my time in Latvia, I rediscovered the magic of music and the power that it has to affect people’s hearts. My time in Latvia was filled with music, and I began to truly see how music makes a difference in people’s lives. From the fun, simple ditties we sang before each meal, to the energy of the songs we played and sang in our Camp Concert, music filled every day at camp, and it really made a difference. Music has power. It has the power to bring people together; every moment I spent teaching guitar to my little class of five brought us closer together, so that students I spent only a week with feel like the closest of friends. It has the power to heal wounds; even in times of struggle or difficulty, the songs of worship we sang every morning never failed to bring life to a weary soul. It has the power to make life fun; the camp dance we practiced each day was always a time of energy and laughter. It’s easy to forget in the midst of a world full of noise and ugliness, but music has incredible power, and it’s a beautiful gift that the Father has given us.
2. Friendship is Foundational
Thomas Aquinas once said, “There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.” Yet in today’s world, it’s so common to get caught up in the spirit of “independence” that we forget the importance of having the support of friends. Often times, our pride wants us to fly solo and take on the challenges of life alone. But a Christian cannot live life as a lone wolf. God designed us for friendships; we were made to be in community with others. In Genesis 2:18, after spending the last chapter calling everything “good,” God finds one thing that is bad. “It is not good that man should be alone.” During my time in Latvia, I truly discovered the value of friendship. As we trained and prepared for our trip, the group of us that went to Latvia truly grew into a team, and our bonds with one another gave us strength, allowing us to face the challenges that we encountered throughout our journey. And although we spent such a short time together, the bonds we formed with Latvian campers and leaders are what truly made the trip a beautiful thing. As we played, worked, and sang alongside them, new friends were made every day. Now, at home, thousands of miles away, not a day goes by that I don’t think of all those who I now consider my dear friends. I will never forget them. A different continent, a different culture, and a different language; yet I came to love the Latvians, and I will ever be their friend. I pray that one day, I will see those friends again.
3. The Church is a Beautiful Thing
It’s easy for me to take the Church for granted. I go to service each Sunday, sing some songs and listen to a sermon; I go to youth group on Tuesday, play some games and play some songs and listen to a sermon; I help with children’s group on Wednesday, telling stories and playing with preschoolers. And the cycle goes on. But the Church is so much more than a building; it’s so much more than a sermon; it’s so much more than a song. The Church is a body of believers, serving one unchanging God, spanning the face of the entire globe! During my time in Latvia, I was privileged to see two completely different church groups from two completely separate parts of the world come together to do the Lord’s work. And it was beautiful! Despite the differences between the Latvian church and our American church, our two teams became one as we ran this music camp. We all come from different backgrounds, but we all serve the same God, and He is a God of unity. It is a breathtakingly beautiful thing to see God’s people from all around the world coming together to bring glory to His name.
4. Silence Has Value
Fact: Americans are loud. And kind of annoying. Fact: I’m an American. So, I guess, Fact: I’m loud. And kind of annoying. Yep, it’s true. Good ol’ Ben sometimes just doesn’t know when to shut up. And one lesson I certainly learned in Latvia is that there is value in the quiet times. Sometimes, what you don’t say is just as important as what you do say. Unfortunately, in America, we live in a culture of noise. We live in a loud world. We’re constantly bombarded from every direction with voices and conflicting messages. And it’s easy to get absorbed by that. In a world of constant noise, it’s tempting to simply raise your voice and seek to be heard above it all. And for me, that’s often the path I’ve chosen to take. I’m loud; if I feel I can’t be heard, I simply talk louder. But maybe that’s not the answer. If the world around me is loud, then by being loud myself, I’m just blending in with everyone else. Maybe the solution lies in the opposite direction- discovering the beauty that exists in the silence. In Psalm 46:10, God tells us exactly that. “Be still, and know that I am God.” God is waiting in the stillness and the quiet. We’re constantly assaulted by sound and fury; we need to discover the beauty of silence. In Latvia, people tend to be more quiet and reserved. They’re not quick to raise their voice. They respect the value of silence. And that’s something we can all learn from. So, to everyone who knows me: I’m sorry I’m so loud. I’m working on it. God has given me a voice and a passion for the truth, which is intended for good, but sometimes I need to just shut up. Because we all need to learn that silence has great value; and it’s in the quiet and the stillness that God most often teaches us who He is.
5. Don’t Be Too Cool
I love working with kids. I’m always very active in children’s ministry at my church. One of the first things I learned about kids is that they want you to be silly. And that’s not always easy. One of my mentors in children’s ministry once told me, “If you think you’re cool, the kids think you look stupid. But if you think you look stupid, the kids think you’re really, really cool.” And during my time in Latvia, I found that this is true in a lot of situations, not just when working with kids. It’s easy to try to be “cool.” I think we all seek the respect of other people, and oftentimes, we try too hard to be chill. That kind of attitude can really be harmful in our ministry to people. If we’re too focused on maintaining our own image, then when God calls us to something that might mess with that image, we don’t want to do it. As Christians, we must be willing to step out of our comfort zone; so don’t be too cool! In Latvia, I had to stretch myself quite a bit. I got pretty familiar with wearing a gorilla suit… and at one point, I had to dance in said gorilla suit, high-heeled shoes, and a pink wig—in front of everybody! It’s easy to get embarrassed. But if, in my embarrassment, I had refused to dance, I would have ended up looking lame, because I wasn’t dancing in a gorilla suit! See what I mean? If I’m trying to look cool, I probably just look stupid; but if I’m willing to look a little stupid, I look a whole lot cooler! Being a follower of Christ means being willing to sacrifice our own image for the glory of God’s image. Sometimes, that means dancing in a gorilla suit, or running 49 laps around a building (long story), or imitating a black man’s accent while yelling about your mama (long story), or maybe just being a target for a bunch of people with water balloons (you guessed it… long story). It might just mean hanging out with those who don’t have any friends. Whatever God is calling you to, just remember- never be too cool to live a life that honors God.
We all have a lot to learn.
Nobody is perfect. No matter how great you think you are, every one of us has a lot to learn. One of the most important lessons to learn in life is that we all have a lot to learn! In Latvia, I was challenged, I was stretched, and I was forced to grow. I have a lot to learn, and through this experience, God taught me a lot. My time in Latvia was truly a life-changing experience, and I’ll never forget the land whose beauty stole my heart, nor any of its people, who truly touched my heart and who I now count as real friends. I still have a lot to learn. But thanks to God, and my new Latvian friends, I’m learning.
Lai dievs jūs svētī! (May God Bless You!)