When camp is over: thoughts on going home

I suppose that on this day, and last week, and next week, and all throughout this summer, tens of thousands of people will at some point go home from having worked and served at camp.

Substitute “mission trip” or “service project” for “camp” and add tens of thousands more to the tally.

Re-entry into real life for campers can be tricky to navigate – metaphorically speaking, anyway. Thanks to Siri and smart phones, it’s been ages since I’ve heard of anyone actually getting lost going to or leaving from camp, which is a good thing, but also has eliminated some of the camp adventure factor. I’m nostalgic about the lack of atlases on long road trips.

But re-entry for camp workers and servers is often even trickier to navigate, for at least several reasons: we were at camp for a long time; we lived in a large community of fellow workers/servers; we are going home to a family that doesn’t understand or buy into similar beliefs and motivations; we face challenges and difficulties at home that will make ‘living out my faith’ less normative and less, well, let’s say ‘glamorous’ for lack of a better term.

Working at camp and serving campers is a thousand times more exciting, motivating, and satisfying than being at home and serving family, friends, and neighbors.

For one thing, there is always music playing in the background. Loudly. (Unless it’s time for reflection, in which case it’s perfectly subdued.)

For another, there is a large cadre of fellow workers/servers to carry you forward, pump you up, and cheer you on. (And sometimes one who gets under your skin and you secretly wish would decide to give up, throw in the towel, call it quits, and get on out of there.)

Throw in some daily devos, adventurous movie-set-ish surroundings, and some regular one-on-one mentoring from a cool and winsome young adult (or a formerly cool, winsome-ish older adult), and it’s easy to see why the thought of ‘going home’ doesn’t always lead to a song and dance.

But home is real. Home is where life happens. Home is where Jesus is, lives, and waits to walk through life with us. Home is sacred. Home is real. Home is blessed (even when it’s not). Home is where the biggest miracles of all happen.

Home is where we are challenged and learn to do the most difficult things of all.

Yes, getting up at 6:00 a.m. every morning to cook for 5oo people is challenging and difficult. But learning to be gracious and kind, every single morning regardless of how early or late it is, to the person in your family that regularly drives you to the edge of rationality — that is a miracle of home.

Yes, learning to work as a unified group with 8 other distinct people (read: love some, could take or leave some, can’t stand some) every day for a month or a summer is challenging and difficult and requires you to ask for the Lord’s grace and patience each and every morning (for a month or a summer, that is). But learning to work and live as a unified group with however many other people are in your household or dorm for the rest of your time living therethat is a miracle of home.

Yes, pushing through the days when you are tired and frustrated and just want to give up or slow down or push off is challenging and difficult and requires you to dig deep down into your soul’s reserves of strength and commitment. But learning to push through the days when you are tired and frustrated with the everyday, mundane, boring, non-camp-ish, adventure-less (we think), pointless (we assume), blahblahblah (we snivel) details of life for the rest of your life — that is a miracle of home.

It’s not hard to be changed at camp. It happens all the time.

Being changed for life – that’s the point. That’s what God wants for us. That’s what Jesus does for us…if we are willing to surrender and serve and listen and obey when we get back home, just like we did when we were at camp.

Big things happen at camp. People are transformed. People meet Jesus. People fall in love with God. People work harder than they ever worked before.

But really big things happen at home. We learn to obey. We learn to listen. We learn to exercise patience. We learn to extend grace. We learn to love, deeply, truly, impossibly, faithfully, and without end.

Do not miss the miracles of home once you’ve left camp. If you do, you will also lose all the miracles of camp, and that would be a tragedy indeed.


The Big Cookie turns 21: the authorized** and re-updated history of Young Life Castaway Club’s signature dessert

**update and addenda at end

(Originally written in 2015, and updated shortly thereafter.)

(Reposted in 2022 for the BC’s 20th birthday.)

(Updated in 2023 for the BC’s 21st birthday.)

The Big Cookie - exhibit A Castaway Club’s The Big Cookie

Once there were four friends from the suburbs of Chicago who were fans of Lou Malnati’s pizza. For obvious reasons. Reasons like, oh, I don’t know, World’s Greatest Pizza of All Time. (They ship nationwide. Game changer.)

On Friday nights, instead of going to the lights, they went to get Lou’s pizza. For obvious reasons. See above. They ate pizza for dinner. If their guts and souls weren’t full, they ate pizza for dessert. Chocolate Chip Pizza, that is, “a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie prepared in a deep dish pizza pan, topped with vanilla bean ice cream and whipped cream. Serves 2-3.” 1610 calories per serving. In case you’re wondering.

Some years later, one of those four friends from the suburbs of Chicago – let’s call him Russell – found himself working in the kitchen at a lovely little place in northern Minnesota called Castaway Club (a Young Life camp) alongside the main chef – let’s call him Dave. During the summer months, Castaway Club serves 3 meals a day to 400 people, give or take.

One day in early 2002, Russell and some Castaway Club co-workers drove to The Medium-Sized City just down the road a ways to eat at a new “chicago” pizzeria – which every Chicagoan knows is a slippery claim to make and a nearly impossible standard to uphold unless the pizzeria is, you know, actually in Chicago. They went hoping for the best, but prepared for much less.

That “chicago” pizzeria in A Medium-Sized City on the outskirts of northern Minnesota had a chocolate-chip-cookie-ice-cream-ish dessert on the menu. Like Lou’s. Sort of. The friends ordered it. The friends ate it. The friends thought about it. Then Russell – the only Chicagoan in the bunch – said to his friends, “Hmmm. Well. Er. We could do better than this. Way better. We could make The Real Thing.”

He wasn’t talking about making The Real Thing for that small group of friends. He was talking about making The Real Thing at camp. For 400 people, give or take.

Thus began a long process of experimenting with ingredients, temperatures, timing, pans, ice-cream, serving, and all sorts of baking-in-a-big-kitchen-for-several-hundred-people issues. With summer fast approaching, there wasn’t much time to crack the code of The Perfect Dessert.

After several months of trying all manner of bakeware, schedules, recipes, and systems (see ** at end of post), Russell, Dave, and some others – let’s call them Kristina, Mandi, Lindsay, and Brad – finally perfected what has come to be lovingly known as The Big Cookie.

The secret to its success is simple:
1. keep it simple (just cookie and ice-cream)
2. keep it hot (on the bottom)
3. keep it cold (on the top)

That’s it. Really. Truly.

Keeping it simple, though, isn’t easy. It rarely is.

After serving dinner to 400 folks, the Big Cookies – pressed perfectly into their deep-dish pizza pans – go into the oven. Not a moment sooner. While they bake, thick round slabs of ice cream – cut and kept frozen until just the right moment – are rolled out of the freezer. Just as 400 folks finish eating their dinner, the Big Cookies come out of the oven, cooked so that the outside is perfectly browned and the inside is perfectly gooey. Each one is quickly topped with its own wheel of ice cream that cools the cookie innards just enough to maintain the just-on-the-edge-of-gooey stage while the hot cookie warms the ice cream just enough to make it just-on-the-edge-of-melting creamy. And then they’re served. Immediately. Without a moment to lose. While still hot/frozen. While still perfect. While still sublime.

There is no eating etiquette. Fact. Anything goes. [Actually, post-CoVid, anything doesn’t go – but it’s still nice to remember those days of yore.] Some people like to savor the wonder. Others like to inhale it. The only rule about eating The Big Cookie – and it’s more of a law, really, like gravity, because it’s not legislated on the front end but it proves to be true on the back-end 100% of the time – is that it must be fully consumed. Every last chip. Every last crumb. Every last drip.

Over the years, The Big Cookie has made its way to almost all of the other Young Life camps (a textbook example of market demand precipitated by word-of-mouth chatter), and each one has its own distinct personality. But the first Big Cookie – The Original, if you will – was first served in a lovely little place in northern Minnesota in the summer of 2002 to 400 people, give or take.

That was 13  20 21 years ago. The Big Cookie is officially a teenager an icon a full-fledged iconic adult now, but just as wondrous and delicious as ever.

On June 14, 2015  June 24, 2023 (give or take a day), the first Big Cookie of the summer season will be served at Castaway Club, now made by a new generation of kitchen folk – let’s call them Deb and Brandon Abby and company. It’s going to be a stupendous event. Only a very few people will know the story of how it came to be. Most will have no idea how much thinking and hoping and strategizing and trial-and-error went into making it just the perfect combination of hot and cold, cooked and gooey, sweet and sweeter. They for sure won’t realize how much work and planning is required to make such a simple looking dessert so perfectly perfect, week after week after week.

That’s okay. Local history and camp food systems don’t top most people’s list of favorite things. The Big Cookie, though…

The Big Cookie(s) ready for baking The Big Cookie(s) ready for baking
The Big Cookie(s) - into the oven after dinner is served The Big Cookie(s) – into the oven after dinner is served
Frozen slabs of ice cream, ready for The Big Cookie(s) Frozen slabs of ice cream, ready for The Big Cookie(s)
Building The Big Cookie Building The Big Cookie


Building the Big Cookie Building the Big Cookie


Serving The Big Cookie Serving The Big Cookie
Serving The Big Cookie option A Serving The Big Cookie option A
Serving The Big Cookie, option B Serving The Big Cookie, option B
The Big Cookie The Big Cookie

**Wowsa. The Big Cookie is near and dear to many people. No surprise there. A few people have asked about the veracity of this story, so I thought I’d give a short background – for those who are interested. From 1992-2004, we lived in Detroit Lakes, MN – just a hop, skip and a jump down the road from Castaway Club. For much of that time, my husband was on property staff while also serving as the Area Director in Detroit Lakes. We hosted many weekend camps, did many summer assignments, and knew the kitchen staff (and others) like family. Russell (his real name) just happened to grow up down the street from me in the NW ‘burbs of Chicago. When he moved to MN to work at Castaway Club, he lived with us for a while, and is as close to being family as non-family can be – which is to say he’s family. This past March In March of 2015, I was at Castaway Club for a LYO (Lutheran Youth Organization) retreat. They served the Big Cookie. That’s when all of these pictures were taken. All those Big Cookies I’d eaten over the years, and I didn’t have a single photo memory. Weird. Anyway, Dave (his real name) and his daughter Kristina (also real name) were there that weekend in 2015: she was the camp director and he was serving on kitchen work crew back in his old stomping grounds. One of them mentioned that the very first Big Cookie “experiment” had been at an LYO event a number of years ago. I was curious about just how long ago, so called Russell and had a long talk with him. All of that to say, the veracity of this story is primo veracious.

Of course, many more people have been part of The Big Cookie story than those mentioned above. For example, there was a summer kitchen intern that year – let’s call him Jon – who probably constructed more Big Cookies than he can count. And probably every other property staff person has at one time or another been part of the extravaganza known as Big Cookie Night (which is, er, well, the night they serve The Big Cookie). Add in countless kitchen Summer Staff, hundreds of dining hall Work Crew … and everyone who’s ever partaken of The Big Cookie (because let’s be honest, after you’ve eaten it the first time, you are part of The Big Cookie Family forever). I knew Big Cookie Loyalty and Love ran deep – but even I’ve been surprised by exactly how deep it runs. Really, it’s just one dessert of one night of camp that many people experience only once in their lifetime – but often it’s the small things that become The Big Things, isn’t it?

A sacred silent space

Sweet Silence Sweet Silence Sweet Silence ***

In case you haven’t noticed (how could you not?) the world is fast, full, loud, chaotic. The chances to sit alone in contemplative silence are few and far between – that is if they exist at all. A dialed-in life (something we are all so good at) easily becomes a tuned-out life (something we all claim to abhor).

I’m spending the week with 350 teens who for 7 days (that is 168 hours; 10,080 minutes; 604,800 seconds) have no phones, no iPods, no computers, no tablets.

They are entirely un-plugged with the hope they can find their way to being completely tuned-in.

It’s a brand new phenomenon for many, one that is difficult at first but is also perhaps the sweetest gift they will receive this week: the chance to be free from all the things that keep them not just connected but also bound to the world around them.

But even better and sweeter than being unplugged for a full week is being solitary and silent for just 15 minutes – a mere sliver of time, a momentary blink of life, a single breath of being.



(But not really alone – rather more with and within and beside and around than perhaps ever before.)

In such a sweetly sacred space it becomes possible to think freely, breathe deeply, and love fully while in the presence of the mighty and gentle Creator.

We all desperately need such sacred spaces and moments, regularly nestled amidst the bustle and frenzy of life as we know it. The question is not so much how and when those sacredly spacious moments might perhaps happen (for might is as good as won’t) but rather how we will repattern our lives in such a way that those sacredly spacious moments must and will happen.

Our very lives depend on it.

*** Fifteen minutes of sacred silence on the lawn at Castaway Club. At right are a Capernaum camper and her leader/buddy/friend – perhaps the most beautiful image of sacred silence a person could ever hope to witness.

Pits Aisle – a bustling sacred space

In the kitchen of a 17th-century monastery where he was assigned to work, Brother Lawrence discovered how to experience solace and contentment and joy, day after day after day.

But only after many days of unrest and discontent and unhappiness. After all, dirty dishes are not the stuff of prestige and power.

But over time, he grew into a richly deep faith – while surrounded by pots and pans and dishes – wherein he did his “common business” wholly and only for the love of God.

If only we could all live like that. If only we could all be contentedly joyful, whether in a 17th-century monastery kitchen or a 21st-century camp kitchen where the task of washing up after 500 people happens three times a day, each day, every day, day after day after day.

That’s a lot of knives, forks, and spoons. That’s a lot of serving platters. That’s a lot of pots and pans. That’s a lot of bacon grease.

Even so, there are a lot of smiles coming out of Pits Aisle (which, with all its back-and-forth traffic is more like an alley or lane), all day, every day, day after day after day, where the dishwashing crew (aka the Pits Crew) works in a narrow space under heavy heat and high expectations.

Pits AlleyPits AlleyPits Alley

These teenagers gave up a month of their summer, with no pay, so that they could wash dishes. And pots. And pans. And more. For a thousand or so people who will never know their names or sing their praises.

And why? Because the job has to get done. Because Jesus lets us be his hands and feet. Because the common business of life is the soil of faithful living and humble service.

More simply:

  • Because they want to. (True story.)
  • Because they can. (Awesome privilege.)
  • Because they follow a loving Lord. (Wild journey.)

What other reason do they need? What other reason do we?

Dancing with angels

Whether it’s the Trinitarian dance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Great Snow Dance of fauns and dryads and dwarfs, or the celebratory angel dance at creation,* dancing is a Very Big Deal in the world of faith and love and hope and joy.

I wish I could dance. Not just shake myself around, or slide my feet, or wave my arms, but really truly dance. The kind of dance that makes music. The kind of dance that moves mountains. The kind of dance that reflects God’s creative soul.

But I can’t. Maybe I’m too dull. Maybe I’m too afraid. Maybe I’m too self-aware.

Hannah and Kelsey, on the other hand, can dance. And by dance I mean Really Truly Dance. Without fear. Without worry. Without anything holding them back from joy and love and life and freedom.

Please meet Hannah and Kelsey. Tonight I watched them dance. On the beach. (We’re at camp, you see, and so of course after a long day of games and rides and meals and music and play and energy, well, we had a sunset party at the beach because, um, we’re at camp.)

I wish everyone could have watched them really truly dance on the beach because it pretty much reassured me that there is still hope for the world. Serious, awesome, deep, rich, genuine, lasting, true hope. Just because Hannah and Kelsey can – and want – to dance.

It’s quite enough to make today a very good day.


* I don’t mean to imply equal value between Trinitarian theology, Narnian holidays, and Job’s poetic metaphors. At least not entirely.