Remembering at Christmas

In a futile attempt to find a relatives mailing address for sending out christmas cards this afternoon I found myself digging through old emails. You read one and then another and you just can’t stop. Memories, interactions, plans. You want to get just a taste of what you wrote back then or what a friend or relative wrote to you.

All this was good and fun until I found an email from my grandmother who passed away this spring. The email was 7 years old but I got emotional almost instantly. This will be our first christmas without her.

Memory and grief is a weird thing and not one I’m particularly well versed in writing about. I’ll go days and weeks without so much of a thought of my grandmother and then a thought, a memory, an interaction will have her come flooding back to me and I keep finding myself, however briefly, overwhelmed.

I think the one thing I’ll say about my grandmother is that she was family in all the messy and traditional ways one might think about that. She was kind and thoughtful and blunt and rude. She was unwaveringly supportive and at times equally sure to note she disagreed with something. But the biggest thing was she was always there. For holidays, special occasions, long weekends in New Hampshire. And through it all you knew that she cared for her family and grandchildren (and great-grandchildren!) deeply.

This Christmas I miss my grandmother. But I’m also deeply grateful for all the times we had together and how in a very real and true and family way she was there with my family and I. Merry Christmas!

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My Journey with Camp (Part 3 of 3)

The next morning after my epiphany I got the news that the two biggest antagonists in my CIT program were being sent home for transgressions on their day off. A bit of me was sad; I didn’t want people to be sent home. But a larger side of me said, “Wow…God must really want me to pass this thing.” And so I set out to do it.

I gave devotions to my fellow CITS and even spoke to the whole camp as part of a chapel we did. The last week I shadowed a chief and stayed in a cabin. No major issues arose. When I sat down with my CIT director for my final evaluation I was confident. I got the sense he was not enormously impressed with me but it didn’t matter. I told him I had done what was expected of me as well as if not better than any of my peers. I think the big change here was not anything tangible it was simply a slight mental shift on my part. People were never going to treat me awesome everywhere, but that was not my responsibility. I simply had to do my best no matter what at all times. People could take it or leave it.

I passed my CIT.

My LIT was 11 summers ago. Since then I have been a chief all or parts of 6 summers. This summer I am a unit director. I plan activities and games, chapels and cabin bibles and am directly responsible for half the chiefs and campers in camp each week. It is in a word, unbelievable. Camp is amazing and fun, difficult and heartbreaking all at the same time. Without a doubt though, I love it. It is not the most glamorous or high-paying job and I realize many people may look at me and wonder why I am still doing this at 26. But overall I have gotten a tremendous amount of joy out of working at camp and will continue here for as long as I can.

My journey has not been short or simple. It has been marked by trials and missteps at every turn. But to close this long-winded episode of my life I’ll say this. God is there, however unnoticeably, working to turn you and me into the tools he desires to glorify him. And in that work, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.—Romans 8:28

 

My Journey with Camp (Part 2 of 3)

I took the next summer off. I went on a summer missions trip with my church. I think some people attribute too much import to this experience in terms of my growth. Did it help me grow and mature? Certainly it did. Was it the magic bullet that led to what occurred the following summer? Not really. Life is complex and lots of factors work together to bring change and realization. I was in contact with the camp director during the winter. He said if I wanted to do the CIT program next summer I would be welcome to. I still remember that first day I got back to camp, walked into the dining hall and shaking the hand of my LIT director from two summers before. He was cordial and was glad to see me. I was happy to be back and determined to succeed with my second chance.

The CIT program involves serving camp in whatever way needed. In my summer it entailed washing the dishes at every meal and cleaning the shower house and bathrooms around camp daily. I still remember pushing my mop bucket up a small hill one morning a few days into the program and breaking down for a moment. This was becoming almost as difficult as LIT.

It got worse.

The CIT is a month long program and as the first couple weeks passed I realized (unbelievably and inexplicably) that I was failing in the same way I failed LIT. My relationships with most of my fellow CITs were awful and my behavior was suffering because of this. This is still a huge question mark for me. I have never been popular or well understood by the majority. But one of the best things about camp was that I got along with most people really well. I had friends, I talked to girls. It was a fantastic alternate universe to my life at home and school. But with LIT and CIT I just could not get along with most of my peers to save my life.

Again here I see a failure of leadership to recognize what I was going through and to understand why I might have been struggling. At one point I was pranked by having shaving cream put in and on my sleeping bag. I was furious and walked across camp to talk to my CIT director. He listened to me but only meekly told the guys to lay off me. No attempt to understand or work with me, just a meaningless reprimand and a desire for me to just get along. I’m not trying to place blame solely on my leaders but to acknowledge that when a person does not get along with a group it is not solely their fault.

At this point however I had the epiphany of my whole experience. One night I realized I could not let the actions of my peers result in me failing again. I had to grow up, do my work and make it impossible to fail.

And quite surprisingly…I did.

 

My Journey with Camp (Part 1 of 3)

I have had a long and fruitful experience at my camp. I have never fully explained my camp story to people. It has not been a secret; at times I have told people openly bits and pieces. Having returned to camp this summer in a leadership position I thought now would be an appropriate time to write out what my journey looked like to this point. I’m telling this story, my story, because I think it is unique and it ultimately served as a vital shaper of who I am today as a person, a leader and a Christian.

I started at camp at the age of 8 or 9. Not the youngest possible age but still pretty early. I started with one week a summer but enjoyed it so much that when I was 13 I went three weeks and four weeks when I was 14. At this point I was ready to move on from being a camper and pursue what I thought was the ultimate job: camp counselor or “chief” as we call them at my camp. My camp has a two year process before you become a chief. First you do a three week Leadership in training (LIT) program when you are 15. This involves a week of backpacking, a week of canoeing and a week rock climbing and on a ropes course. It’s an intense experience but as I prepared to go I felt pretty confident. I knew camp, I knew this was what I wanted and I knew this was the next step. I was ready.

LIT was hell.

There is no nicer was to put it. Aside from certain moments being overseas, doing the LIT was the most difficult thing I have ever done. The funny thing is the physical part wasn’t the hard part. I could out hike anyone and my canoeing and climbing skills were tenacious if not precocious. The difficult thing was getting along with the other boys on my trip; I did that terribly. My leaders responded by failing to understand what I was going through and interpreting my sometimes exasperating behavior as unacceptable. I do not claim to be perfect but at a root level I think I was treated unfairly. This next part probably won’t mean much to people outside of camp but it was ultimately a significant and low point of my life.

I failed LIT.

To move onto the next year, the Counselor in Training (CIT) program, I needed to pass. I had a long conversation with my LIT leader that last night. I think I remember almost pleading with him. But ultimately he thought I needed more time to grow and mature. The clearest memory I have of that night is just bawling in the tent in front of the others. I was convinced I was never going to return to camp.

In Spite of Everything…

I spent 2008 interning for a Christian ministry in South Africa. Going to Africa had been my dream my entire life. To finally get out there and live it and see it was incredible. My ministry, Thrive Africa, was young and small compared to most, but it was vibrant and strong in the vision and work it was doing. In many ways the positive strength that exuded from Thrive became personified for me in one man, the co-founder. He had founded the ministry with his eventual wife 10 years previously. He was a big, smart, white South African. If God hadn’t got to him he probably could have played rugby or at least been a strong farmer like so many Afrikaans people are. He was without a doubt, a born leader.

To be honest it took me a few months to warm up to him. I was a small, shy American; he was the leader of an entire ministry. I worried I might say something wrong or stupid to him. I was afraid to engage him in casual conversation. A trip to Botswana a few months into our year however brought us together in fairly close quarters. I finally got to the point where I didn’t feel nervous around him. I could ask him questions, make jokes. I felt like on some level I connected with him better than almost anyone else on our missions base. Because of all this I began to soak in every word I could from him.

There were a lot of words. He taught us a class on leadership every week. He almost always preached at the church we had each week. He led a Bible study for the men on base during the winter months. I listened, I pondered, and I retained everything I could. At the time, he was in many ways the ideal Christian leader in my mind. Strong, but humble. Logical, but in touch with the spirit. Blunt, but caring. I still today quote things regularly that he told me. I even picked up one of his phrases he always said and now say it myself.

I returned home at the end of my year full of joy with all that had happened. However a few days later I got an email. The leader I had nearly idolized during the year had been cheating on his wife with one of the missionary staff. His wife had finally gotten him to admit to it. A few months later it was revealed that in spite of his wife’s wiliness to reconcile, to seek therapy, to make it work, he was pursuing a divorce. Everything was now up in the air.

Thrive, in the last couple years, has done an unbelievable job trying to move on and continue with their ministry. However their efforts were not enough to keep Thrive on sound enough financial footing. Today it was publicly announced on their website that Thrive is closing. I cannot tell you how shocked and dismayed I am by all of this.

I had the incredible opportunity to return to Thrive this past summer to see the ministry in action once more. I went out to dinner with the then director and some missionary staff who were nice enough to answer any questions I had about the situation of the ministry. Unsurprisingly, HE came up. And the director said something which unexpectedly stuck with me.

“His actions do not undo the truth of the things he told you.”

This entry is not being written to cast blame. It is meant to show that in spite of everything, God is good. Thrive was an active, flourishing ministry for 13 years. It impacted the lives of thousands of South Africans and North Americans who served under them, including myself. Even now a new ministry is being formed to continue much of the vital work that Thrive has done. Today is without a doubt a sad day, a day I will join in with many in mourning the end of a fantastic ministry. However life, work, and ministry continue unabated all over the world and the actions of no one can hope to stem the flow of the love of Christ on this lost and hurting world.

I finish this entry with a Bible verse that sums up things better than I could ever hope to.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.—Romans 8:38-39

 

What a difference a year makes…

A year ago on my birthday I spent most of the day en route and then in a foreign hospital. I found myself in a room with 4 other men ranging in age from their mid-20s to their 70s. I got demolished in chess by one them. We could speak about 10 words to each other as I didn’t speak Czech and he didn’t speak English. The following morning I was operated on in a foreign country.

This year my birthday was rather different. A lot happened yesterday, but the following anecdote will suffice to describe it. At the end of August I started coaching a high school cross country team. 16 boys, 5 girls. It is my first time as a head coach. We had a race on Wednesday and if we had won I had planned to tell them thanks for the birthday gift: my first win as a head coach. We lost so I decided to simply play it cool. My two assistants wished me happy birthday at the start of practice, how they knew I wasn’t aware. I then ran the practice as normal: warm-up, run, core exercises, stretching, thoughts about the race the day before. Then per usual we came together for the end of practice prayer and cheer. Except instead of saying LCA (the school’s name) they broke into “Happy Birthday.” And then as we broke apart as a group one of the guys breaks out a full-size birthday cake.

This was no ordinary cake. It didn’t merely say “Happy Birthday” or have candles in it. It was picture of me transposed onto the frosting. Completely edible and delicious. One of my runners had gone onto Facebook and found a photo of me (we aren’t friends…I need to update my privacy settings…), printed it out and took it to the cake store. My assistant coaches gave me a nice card with a Dunkin gift card attached. The team had all signed a paper wishing me a happy birthday.

I’ve known these people less than a month. I apparently mentioned that my birthday was in 9 days in passing 9 days ago. I cannot express how utterly surprising all this was to me.

It’s easy for me to see the negatives in the world, to be cynical, to moan about all that is wrong. But people, as capable of they are of evil, also have a wondrous ability to do good. I saw that yesterday in my team and it was simply fantastic.

Sandy Cove Awesomeness

I returned home from just over a year abroad on July 18th. I was supremely blessed to find myself (again) at a place as awesome as Sandy Cove Ministries a mere week after my return.

Sandy Cove is a Christian Conference center in Maryland that at least one member of my family has been going to every summer since 1989. Over twenty years, crazy right? But it is just that super. Amongst many, many things it offers it specializes in week long family vacation packages during the summer. Adults and parents come for good speakers, worship and childcare. The kids (including me over 10 years ago) enjoy the massive amount of activities available including: swimming, boating, mini golf, softball, zip line, soccer, basketball, tennis and many more. We also get to hang out with other kids our age and learn a bit about the Bible as well. All around Sandy Cove offers an excellecent package deal for a fun and impactful break from life.

This year was a bit different. I haven’t been here as a “vacationer” in over 5 years. But amazingly the dates worked out so I could be here all week with my Mom, sister, brother-in-law and my beautiful 5-month old niece who I just got to meet this past Sunday. I wasn’t young enough for the kids programs and don’t have my own family just yet but it was still great. I played mini-golf and Disc-golf. I did some stand-up at the talent show. I parasailed. I got some great insights from the speaker I can use this fall as I begin coaching. It was a huge blessing to be back here.

I highly recommend looking up Sandy Cove if you get a chance. They are a great ministry offering rest and reflection for all.