I attended summer camp in the ozark mountains for ten years as a camper and two years as a counselor. It was the beginning of my faith.
The terms were twenty-six days, nearly four weeks, something that seems unthinkable to parents now with required school sports camps and a failing economy and the pressure to make the most of every single minute (together).
As a camper, this month in the summer was the highlight of my childhood years. I made friends who would eventually be bridesmaids, I met heroes, I was physically challenged in ways I’m not naturally inclined, I was my best self.
When I decided to work at the camp during the summer between my early college semesters, I lost (or threw away, depending on your perspective) what I found sacred about the place.
I was treated like a child, I acted like a snot, and the leadership and I parted ways with a few conversations that I regret. It’s not a salacious or even an original story. Everyone I know has small hurts with their primary faith institution. My problem was a youthful arrogance untempered by any sort of realistic guidance. I was on my own, both then and now.
For years after a summer of unfortunate incidents, I let my faith be colored by circumstances and attitudes out of my control. I beat myself up for working there not just one but two difficult summers. I felt entitled to a treatment I didn’t deserve or receive. Those summers, I became an adult kicking around the same pea gravel from adolescence.
Over time it became a family punchline.
“And then I got fired! Because they were crazy! And I was crazier! Aren’t twenty-year-olds something else?”
But the twenty-year-old became a twenty-five-year-old living in Los Angeles without a church home, but still without much hindsight.
And then the twenty-five-year-old was a thirty-year-old with an uncanny ability to package it up in a trunk and consider the whole nostalgic episode just a part of the journey.
I decided to make the trek back to Missouri because I wanted to see it again for myself. I wanted to wipe away the silly parts, and forgive the scarring parts. More than anything, I wanted to go back to remembering summer camp as the most magical part of my first two decades. Because it was.
On the road with my sister, I was alternately a wreck and a mess. You would think after thirteen years I would walk with mature resolve in my capri pants. Instead I cried, and ate too much chocolate, and thought about things that I hadn’t thought about in a very long time.
I must have leaked out all of my angst onto the minivan floor, because when I strolled across the upper soccer fields for the first (and 572nd) time, my soul was completely still. I felt nothing but joy peeking at the cabins full of stories, the pool where I took synchronized swimming, the flag pole where I used to greet every morning. I felt buoyant, in fact, sharing these things with my niece who is now a camper. I was that mix of sheepish confidence, where I knew every secret rock around, but as a visitor I had to pretend to feel out of place.
I tried to journal when I got back to my hotel room, but the words wouldn’t come. I felt nothing that I thought I would feel. I realized that things can only hurt you when you care about them, and I cared about this place very, very much. And the hurts from that time were real, and they are also over.
I didn’t really need to go to the middle of the country to figure that out. But I’m glad I did.