60. Life-Changing Summers

LIFE-CHANGING SUMMERS

It was the week I looked forward to every year!  Like many of you, when I was a kid the end of the school year was always celebrated with great gusto……..for about 2 weeks!  But by the end of June I was missing my friends, being bossed around by my older sisters while my mom and dad worked, and getting annoyed by my little brother who just wanted to hang out with me.  What’s a kid to do in the dog days of summer, when the heat is on, there’s only so many games of wiffle-ball you can play, and there’s nothing on TV worth watching?  For me the answer was always that amazing week when I got pack my suitcase, roll up my sleeping bag, grab my pillow and head for an incredible adventure at church camp!  My outlook on summer always brightened when I knew camp was coming soon!!

I was just 8 years old when I went to camp for the first time. Though I had spent a night here and there at my grandparent’s or with my cousins, summer camp was the only time of the year I got to be away from my parents, siblings, and even my school friends. During those incredible weeks I would go on  hikes, do crafts, swim in a real pool, sing crazy songs, buy candy and ice cream at the camp store, perform in skits, and hear some inspirational Christian speakers who just seemed to understand how us kids thought. Best of all, in just 5 or 6 short days I made friends with my cabin mates and those amazing college students who served as our counselors. Though I was always ready to go home by the end of the week, even now, over 50 years later, I’m amazed at the impact those weeks at camp had on me.

As I moved into my teenage years church camp became even more important.  By now I understood what to expect when I got to camp and I simply did not want to miss it.  I would work hard all Spring to save up the money so I could pay for camp and have plenty of spending money to buy the right clothes,  pay for my meals on the long trip to camp and back, and have plenty left for the nightly feast of junk food at the canteen. Best of all, as a teenager, I got to go to camp with friends from my church youth group and connect with other kids from around our denomination’s “district”.  Of course, it also didn’t hurt that there was always the “camp romance” to be found and enjoyed! You never knew who you were going to meet, and I had more than my share of summer camp flings!

Camp holds a special place in my spiritual life too! Most of the significant moments in my spiritual journey as a young person happened in a camp setting.  In fact, I was actually called to the ministry at a youth camp…..though initially I was quick to say “No Way God….you’ve got the wrong guy”.  For the next 12 months God patiently pointed me toward the ministry but I was more than just a little reluctant.  When I arrived at camp the next year the very first message by the speaker was directly geared toward people God was calling into the ministry.  I was not happy with him and spent the first 3 days of camp downright miserable. Finally, on Wednesday night of camp in 1970 at the age of 15, I finally submitted to God and accepted His call on my life.  From that moment on I never looked back, and I can honestly say the ministry is exactly what I was created to do. I certainly can do a lot of other things, and would probably have been pretty successful. But trust me,  I know that I know that nothing else would give me the sense of fulfillment I’ve found in serving God in a variety of capacities as a minister.

Fortunately, those teenage years were not the end of my summer camp experience……and in many ways they were just the beginning.  At the age of 18, now serving in the Air Force, I took on my first role as a Camp Counselor at a Boys and Girls camp.  Someone actually entrusted me with the life and welfare of 9 boys aged 8-11! I don’t know what they were thinking but I took to the role like a fish to water!  I remembered all the crazy things my counselors had done when I was there age and tried to do them all. We laughed, played, sang around the campfire, did absolutely stupid skits, competed to win the camp Olympics like it was the Super Bowl, and pigged out on more junk food than any human should consume.  In less than a week I grew to love those kids and became somewhat of a hero to them. I was even voted “Best Counselor” for the entire camp….WOW!   After that I was hooked!

I know there was nothing really unusual about what I did at summer camp compared to what anyone else did. Camp activities look strangely familiar almost anywhere around the country, based on the geography, location, money invested and the quality of the leaders. The planned activities are certainly one of the highlights of any youth camp, and every kid or young person deserves to have that experience at least once or twice.  But the real value of the summer camps I went to wasn’t the activities I participated in, but rather the people I shared those special moments with during that all too brief escape from reality!

Over the last 18 months I’ve actually been blessed to reconnect with some of my friends from my teenage years at camp.  Although I was traveling for the national ministry job I had with the YMCA when they gathered at the old campgrounds for a reunion in 2018, I’ve continued to follow this small group of old friends via an ongoing conversation on Facebook Messenger.  Even today several of them chimed in to check on how everyone’s doing amidst the current pandemic and state of unrest in our country.  These were some of my closest friends 50 years ago  (YIKES, I GOT OLD…BUT SO DID THEY).   We shared some amazing memories that had a profound impact on us all.  We’ve all gone different directions over the course of our lives, but somehow we now have reconnected after all these years……and I’m grateful.  As I’m getting to know them “again”, I’ve realized how much they meant to me then……and still do today! 

As a camp counselor, and later as a Camp Director, I always wanted to make that week away something the campers would never forget. Whether it was a planned activity, the quality of the staff we brought together, the crazy antic we led in the dining room, or the impact of the evening chapel service, I wanted those weeks to be memorable.  I tried very hard to set the tone for that aspiration. I participated in everything, talked to as many kids as I could one and one, encouraged every counselor, shared a bevy of my own zany stunts and ideas,  and let my enthusiasm pump others up.  I’d leave camp totally exhausted, but feeling like I had just made the best investment of my life!  The staff and the campers all called me “Crazy Larry”, and probably for good reason, but I took it as a sign of affection!

I continued serving in a leadership capacity in youth camps well into my late 40’s, investing at least one week a year in this diversion from more sedate ministry efforts. I looked forward to those weeks as much as a leader as I had as a camper…..just for different reasons.  After a couple of knee surgeries and a growingly complex schedule, I eventually turned the reigns over to another generation of leaders to continue the tradition of touching the lives of young people through camp.

I’m much older now and there’s no way I can do the things I used to do — endless volleyball games, teaching countless kids to waterski, climbing huge pine trees,  going an entire week on 2-3 hours a sleep a night,  being somewhat the “life of the party” about 16 hours a day,  hiking on uneven trails, and breaking up the human hormone couples that occupy any middle school or high school camp.  But though those days are somewhat over for me, the pleasant memories linger.  I’m so grateful that God gave me the opportunity to get to know Him better in a place like camp!

The real secret to camp, or even a good retreat, is to give people the opportunity to get away from their routines and the noise that surrounds them and let them actually hear God! Being surrounded by His creation, listening to someone challenge you from His Word, and honestly talking about those things with your peers and some trusted mentors is simply an unbeatable formula for spiritual formation and growth. My life was literally changed at summer camp…..and many of the friends I’m chatting with days could say the same thing.  It’s actually one of the main things that ties us together, even after all these years.  Some memories are just too sweet to be forgotten.

I hope you have similar memories!   If not, it’s not too late! Who knows what God has for you if you’ll just say “Yes” to the next such opportunity…..a retreat,  a Christian conference, or even a family camp!

Open the door and let God meet you there…….it truly could be life-changing!