When someone says the word “camp,” or says anything that remotely reminds me of WinShape, I am flooded with memories. One of those, one of the most poignant ones, is the beginning of the Comanche Challenge.
One night, just after sunset, when there’s still enough light that it reflects off teary eyes, high school girls line either side of a long, straight stretch of road. They light candles and slowly begin to sing “Amazing Grace.” As they do, a few special girls walk down that road silently, tightly holding hands and usually at least a little overwhelmed. These girls are the ones embarking on the challenge, the Comanche. They have been singled out at camp for seeking and showing Jesus. It’s a sacred ceremony, and everyone understands the weight and the importance. It is solemn, but it is joyful.
The whole scene is beautiful: the Lodge and the Arch–two camp fixtures–in the fading light, the voices of some hundred girls singing a hymn, watching people you love prepare to experience the Lord in a way that will change their lives forever, praying for them. It’s always been one of my favorite camp traditions to be a part of.
Watching them get in a car and drive away from camp.
To pursue the Lord.
This summer, I finished up my time as a camper at WinShape Camps (I think). Yes, I definitely want to go back as a staffer, but it will be different. There’s something about being a camper, and kind of magic in knowing that it’s all for you. This, then, is the end of a seven-year-long chapter of my life. I feel a bit like the Comanches as they head toward the van, walking away from camp. Loved and celebrated; a little nervous and apprehensively excited; most of all, they and I are so, so ready to follow and learn from God.
This is not the post about what I learned, there will probably be several and I’ve hardly begun to process everything God showed me this summer. He literally changed my life, and I cannot wait to tell you all the things that He’s shown me and what happened. I do so with reservation– I don’t want to cheapen camp into a blog post. I couldn’t. This and whatever posts follow don’t even scratch the surface. My heart and soul are bubbling over with awe and joy, and there is no way I can contain or portray the impact of camp on my life. This falls miserably short. But it’s important to speak to the work the Lord’s doing in this tiny corner of Berry’s campus.
This is the abridged story of one camper.
Once upon a time, I was going to be an astronaut. I was getting a doctorate in aeronautical engineering from MIT and was going to be the first person on Mars. When I was eleven, I decided I was going to space camp. My parents gently suggested that maybe that wasn’t the best option for me, so how would I like to go to WinShape?
Over the next seven years, I would move to four different countries and grow from a shy, goofy elementary schooler to a fairly confident, self-aware senior in high school. I would grow up, in every sense of the word. And for 12 days every year, I would have the time of my life. It became the highlight of my year. At camp, it’s routine to go into lunch sweaty, wet, covered in paint or glitter, singing nonsensical camp songs about canoes or moose or rigabamboos. People are banging on tables, and yelling “ooooooooohhh.” The huge wooden rafters with tribe flags hanging just make it feel more like camp. The food is always good, the company is even better, and everyone is having fun.
That’s the way camp always is. Camp is where mud is slung, socks are thrown, songs are belted, cheers are screamed, lives are changed and memories are made. Camp is for being fiercely loyal to your tribe, and forming friendships sweeter than anything. It’s for laughing loudly and dancing badly and loving deeply. You dress up, jump around, lose your voice, run from counselors with water guns, get pied in the face, do the Cupid Shuffle, eat hobos, walk up and down hills, watch stars, get new names, take silly pictures and make a fool of yourself because it’s camp. It’s the best place in the world. As a dear friend put it, “it’s like, ‘you’re blinking at WinShape, you have to celebrate!'” You have more fun here than anywhere else in the world.
It truly, truly is the summer of a lifetime. Because beyond the games and the paint and the cheers, camp is about Jesus. You see, there’s a reason why we camp people call it a little slice of Heaven. Camp is a place where maybe–just maybe–God is closer. It’s hard not to be more aware of Him. To see Him everywhere. In worship and devotions, of course, but also in smiles and hugs and silly activities. Every second at WinShape is bursting with the love of a God who is bigger and stronger and better than anything in the world. One who loves us and died for us and wants nothing more than for us to be His. Camp always, unwavering, points to Him. There’s no doubt that it’s all for His glory. And I think He speaks more.
Take me. The awkward kid, knowing that God’s not done with her yet. After a hard year, seeing how He controls her story. As she grows into herself, learning that her identity is in Christ. The next year, how to guard her heart as she heads to high school. The anxious, scared and bitter girl who learned how to face her fear with confidence, because she was anchored in the Lord. When everything felt like it was falling apart, she remembered how to hope–truly hope–in Him. The rising senior, a little bit scared of the world, prepared to follow Jesus and become more like Him, even when there are too many choices to sort through.
My time at camp has shown me how to be caring, confident, compassionate, content, consistent and courageous. It’s taught me how to love well, how to encourage, how to lead. It’s given me the tools I needed to trust the Lord, to lean on Him, and to follow Him. It’s impressed upon me the importance of reading the Bible daily, of seeking Christ and choosing to follow Him. I’ve learned a healthy tenacity, and how to prioritize wisdom and honesty. I’ve seen the joy and freedom in totally letting yourself go and having fun just for the sake of enjoying things a little bit more. To get excited, to act excited, to do it because you love it. To follow your calling and the Lord because you never know where you’ll end up. I learned to look for the grace in the struggle. Crying in front of strangers is more freeing than it is embarrassing. I’ve learned social skills, I learned epic Ninja skills; I’ve learned how to take care of myself. In fact, I know myself–I know my limitations, my strengths, my callings, even–because of camp. I’ve seen the power in a conversation. It taught me to be confident in myself, but it also taught me to be vulnerable. I understood never to confuse the person with the purpose. I was shown–and made to practice–facing fear and getting over myself. I learned to be discerning and cautious and prayerful, and to be reckless and hopeful and to just do it. To rest. To be brave and trust His goodness and faithfulness–which, by the way, never fails.
Camp staff showed me the Lord–how He loves and cares and pursues me. They encouraged, they spoke, they prayed incessantly. The truth and honesty they poured into me have shaped me as a person and as a believer. They also have become some of my biggest role models and cheerleaders, and I can’t tell you enough how thankful I am for them. There were hard times, too. It wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows. There was drama, there was discomfort and anger and bitterness. Some days, some years, were really difficult. But the design of camp makes it hard–next to impossible–to leave desperately addicted to Jesus.
This is only a shortlist. It’s incomplete by hundreds of little things. But really, camp has made me who I am. I couldn’t be prouder.
I can’t speak for anyone except myself. I know there are campers who have hated camp, who have had the opposite experience, and people all across the spectrum. I just have seen the Lord work so much though those short days spent at WinShape. I honestly don’t know where I’d be today without it. Camp has provided role models, friendship, fun, a lot of truth, and a place to call home. Sitting here, typing this on my laptop, I can feel the sun on my back and Janie Bird Square under my feet. I can see the conversations happening, the games being played, the campers walking the camp path. I can hear the laughter, the singing, the gaga- and tetherballs bouncing. And I feel the presence and the love of Jesus in a way that only camp seems to bring.
So maybe I am even more like the Comanches walking out toward the van. I’ve been at camp for awhile. I’ve seen and tasted the Lord in ways sweeter than words can say, and fallen in love with Him and with camp. And now, it’s time to go. Once the Comanches climb into the van, all of camp gathers outside it. Says the driver: “Don’t talk, girls, but look out the window. All those people, they’re praying for you.” It’s scary to walk into the unknown, but oh how He is there and how He’s going to show up and I’m so ready. So I am, I guess, putting away the skill beads and the tribal bands and heading off to a different sort of challenge: real life (at least for a couple of years).
As the sun sets on this wonderful chapter, I have nothing but thanks. 84 days is not a long time. But the impact will last forever.
Thank You, Jesus, for my favorite place in the world.
Thank you, WinShape, for everything. You have not served in vain.