Tomorrow I get to go to the most beautiful place on earth.
Camp. Just saying the word feels like music. I think a lot of people would say that the word should be screamed gleefully by about eighty-two children in order to convey the actual meaning. But I would disagree. I think it should always be whispered. You should close your eyes, smile softly, and whisper, I am going to camp. I am going back home. In chapel this year, someone mentioned that God doesn’t always speak in thunderclaps. Leesville Lake taught me that clearer than ever. And tomorrow, I get to go back.
It’s a work day, getting camp ready for the summer. Last year I organized the day, drove around in a golf cart with a radio clipped to my hip. This year I’m volunteering. And I’m okay with that. This summer is different – I’ve noticed already. But I’ve beat that horse into the ground, so I’m not going to talk about my strange, normal summer anymore. I just want to tell you about the most beautiful place on earth. I want to make your heart long for the same thing mine longs for. It’s like when a really proud mother rambles on and on about her kid, the star of the play or the top hitter on the t-ball team. You never fully understand what it’s like to love the kid so much, but you can see the love in the mother’s eyes, and you feel it too.
I grew up there. From second grade, I was there every summer. For only a week at a time at first, then longer and longer, until I was going into tenth grade and I spent my entire summer there as a junior staffer. Did that for three years. Never got paid. It was really hard. I changed a lot during those three summers. And usually, I hated leaving. For better or for worse, camp became my home, like I was tied to it. And it hurt when I had to tear myself away. The summer after I graduated, I went on full-time, PAID, staff. I never went home. I was home. In so many ways, I was like the firefly with the broken wing and camp was my safe jar. Then I went to college. And I went back the following summer. Things were different. My wings had mended and I flew around, getting stronger, and when I came back, I realized I couldn’t be held in a jar anymore. But I was still so in love. And that was the decision: Stay in the jar, and grow to resent it, or leave the jar, and always love it.
Now that I think about it, that’s the decision with a lot of things, isn’t it?
Leesville Lake was man-made, but I pretend that’s only a rumor when I’m there. When I sit on the tower on my waterfront, looking at nothing but water framed by hills, I pretend glaciers cut the valley. They melted, and Leesville is what happened. But in my head I know that a century ago, the town in the valley flooded too often so everyone moved away and they dug it out and let the rain come. People say there are still houses and churches deep under the water. I don’t know for sure, but I get chills every time I hang my feet off my kayak in the middle of the lake, thinking for one moment that I’ll graze the top of a steeple. I let my feet dangle anyway.
Aldersgate has the best waterfront on the lake. There are other camps, too, but I’ve seen their waterfronts, and nothing compares. We have the best view, and the best water toys. But mostly the best view. See it with me: there’s one big hill straight ahead, and behind that, a wider, mistier one. To the right the lake goes on, but to the left, the tall pines block the water in a little cove. It’s easy to get canoes and kayaks stuck back there. It’s like camp just pulls everything in. The first time I got stuck in the cove, it scared me, because things like that always do. But now that I think about it, I’d give almost anything to be drawn back in.
At night, we always did this thing at campfire, before things got too serious: we’d hush the kids, and someone would tell them that last year, we had set the record for most echoes on the lake. We’d always tell them something ridiculous, like the last group of kids got a hundred and thirty two echoes and we had to beat it. So one of us would yell, Attitude check! and they’d all respond as one PRAISE THE LORD! and then they would have to be totally and completely silent as we listened for the echoes from the other side of the lake. And we never got more than eleven echoes, really, because it’s forty kids and a really big atmosphere sucking up all the noises, so we’d try a few more times. Then we’d tell them they’d just have to come back next year and try again. And the campfire went on. Some loud, crazy singing, then a skit or two, then a really good story. And if they were older, that’s when the pow-wow would start: going around and answering questions like “If you could shrink any person and carry them in your pocket, who would it be?” all the way to “What are you afraid of?” It was the first place I ever saw people be truly honest. Staring into the flames, that’s when I realized that this was the only way life could make sense: being human for other humans to see. Trusting that God was doing something with it all.
For a long time, I thought camp was the shout. But as I got older, I came to understand that camp was the echo. I never listened to the shout, to the noise, but I was silent waiting for the echo. That’s when I heard the words: praise the Lord… praise the Lord… praise the Lord… praise… praise…
The echo is what I miss. It’s what I’ll listen for tomorrow.
Do you even know how many lives God is going to explode into this summer? Time freezes at camp; it’s like walking into a photo album. I drive in and I see myself at nine, standing in the parking lot, crying because I don’t want to stay. At thirteen, dropping my bags on the drive and sprinting into the arms of my favorite counselor. At nineteen, standing beside my car because I don’t want to get in it because I know when I do, I have to drive away. Then in the dining hall – imaginary photos of myself, not eating because my kids were taking turns throwing fits during the meal and I had to be there for them. On the basketball court, sixteen years old and spread-eagled on the center of the concrete at eleven o’clock at night, knowing that the next day was the end, pressed down by the weight of being sixteen and afraid. And the three best friends who found me there, and said nothing, but lay down beside me silently, because they were the only ones who knew me enough to get it. And from there we could go right to the outdoor chapel, with a ceiling of branches and a giant rock for an alter. A thousand frozen moments there: praying with my own counselors, then praying with my own campers; the first time I lifted my arms in worship; depleting my stock of band-aids in one morning watch because every single one of my girls had a bleeding mosquito bite; finding a note in my Bible from the first little girl to ever tell me I taught her something about God; reading a poem for a service; huddled on the giant rock in the shadow of the makeshift cross, eating Curious George fruit snacks and pleading with God all at once. Or we could’ve turned left, toward the musty treehouse I called my home for two summers with about a million spiders and about a million more 6-year-old girls. Photos of hugs goodnight and promises of safety that I knew I couldn’t keep once the world snatched my girls away again. The first time I ever made up a bedtime story on the fly – how zebras got their stripes. I still don’t know if any of the girls were awake by the time I finished. Maybe it was better that they fell asleep – now they can still wonder about the zebras. One night, after I each one was asleep, my best friend died the tips of my hair purple. It was one in the morning and it was the loudest form of quiet we’d ever been. When morning came, we told the campers it was the trolls who had done it, and all day we searched for the elusive purple creatures.
So many more frozen memories – on the step of the cottage and on the drop-off near the dorms and my first labyrinth in the activity center and the time I thought I’d gotten the golf cart stuck by the lower cabins. Cabin six, when my sixth graders asked me about the apocalypse and I had no idea what to say; cabin eight, my last summer as a camper surrounded by girls I thought I’d stay in touch with forever. Sleeping under the stars on the beach – the only place I can identify all the constellations because they’re always in the same place there. Red string traded for white on the top of the tower – because he said it would last longer. I threw all my string away last year. I don’t know what that means now. You probably don’t either, but you could ask me and I’d tell you.
I get to go back tomorrow. Only for a day. I’ll clean and walk around the place and pray for every frozen moment, every echo of summer – and for the ones coming this summer. I don’t need to be there for the place to be beautiful. If anything, I was only ever a shadow on the closest thing I’ve ever known to Eden. God is going to change lives with or without me. It took a lot to understand that. But I can’t wait for it to happen. He is so good. I can feel Him there – the way I can hold your hand, I can feel Him. That’s how real He is there. That’s how real He always is, everywhere. But I’m still too blind to see it. At camp, I’m a little softer.
Tom Hammerton was one of the original Aldersgate guys, a long time ago. There’s a big story that goes with him, and it’s a great one, but here is the important part: He loved camp as much as I do. Probably even more. For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard about Tom Hammerton, who stood on the shore of Leesville Lake and said that he didn’t mind if he never made it to the Holy Land. This – this lake, this place – it was his Sea of Galilee.
I think he was right. Sometimes I think I have to go do really big things – I have to see everything and think about everything and know everything. But maybe sometimes, things just have to be enough. It has to be enough that you said the things that mattered. It has to be enough that the decision was made. That you let go. Gave it up – whatever it is. The big world is there and going into it will blow my mind – but God’s grace falls on every dusty patch of earth and makes it beautiful. Every screwy human made beautiful. Every flooded town made beautiful.