They arrived today – cars and vans and busses of young mamas, babies, and mentors (who are women of courage, strength, and faith that none can describe fully or faithfully).
We are off and running, and the race is going to be exhilarating as these young women are introduced to love, grace, joy, and eternal reconciliation.
This week happens, in large part, because of things that are seen by only a few people, things that are astoundingly and breathtakingly beautiful –
things like moving over 100 strollers from under the rainy skies to under the dry porch to wait for their first passenger to arrive … sometimes the weather is drizzly, you see
things like stacking highchairs and patiently vacuuming a dining hall where 100 tinies and littles just ate dinner with their mamas … sometimes the food flies, you see
things like wiping down sticky booster chairs in which 50 toddlers just ate dinner with their mamas … sometimes the food spills, you see
things like holding a little for the very first time while her mama heads off for an evening of laughter, fun, and whimsical play … sometimes the littles need some encouragement, you see
things like letting a tiny snuggle in close so she can sleep peacefully, safely, and contentedly until her mama returns with a wide embrace … sometimes the tinies just need a safe and warm place, you see
things like comforting a little while he rests in a new place for the very first time … sometimes everyone needs a reassuring presence, you see.
These are the unseen things that make this week possible – these and a thousand others like them.
Our God is a God of grace, and He has surely filled this place and these people with grace unbounding. He has breathed Himself into this air and into these lives.
In less than 24 hours, several hundred middle school students and leaders will descend on a sacred place in the Ozarks for the very first week of summer camp at Young Life’s Clearwater Cove.
Most of the world knows absolutely nothing about this.
But a very small sliver of the world – and all of God himself – knows very well what is about to happen here: fun, love, Jesus, grace, hope, and real life.
While much of society is bemoaning the current trends and behaviors of teenagers, twenty high school students have given up a month of their summer to willingly, enthusiastically, and joyfully serve middle school students at this sacred place nestled atop a mountain of rock. No joke. These people right here are people you should know. They are going to change the world – while they are still in HS – because they are serving the very God who made the world.
In the midst of depressing headlines, deadly conflicts, and desperate situations, these twenty high schoolers (and 36 college students, and so many others) are choosing hope, life, love, joy, forgiveness, and transformation.
God does that. He gets hold of a person’s heart, flips it upside down and inside out, remakes it into something alive, and sends it out into the wide world to be light and love, salt and sweet aromas, in order to draw others into his infinitely welcoming arms.
I don’t know what you’re doing this summer. But these folks here, and countless others like them across the US and the world, are doing something big and bold and beautiful: they are being obedient, they are being humble, they are serving, they are giving, they are considering others as more important than themselves – and because of that, God is going to do mighty things. I have no doubt.
Clearwater Cove, tucked away in a corner of God’s overwhelmingly breathtaking creation, is ready to fling wide open its doors and welcome teenagers to a week they will never forget. Gracious sakes – the work of celebration and the celebration of work have just begun, and for many people, life will never be the same again.
(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.)
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 teenageran 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…
**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?
[Here I muse about life-at-large while being here-at-camp.]
camp /kamp/ noun
1. here; this place
2. where claps of joy and rustles of praise endure forever
Here we have community. Here we worship. Here we serve. Here we grow. Here we see God at work. Here we feel Jesus’ love. Here we taste the Spirit’s power.
Here there is grace abounding.
And also there, “there” being every place that is not here.
Camp does not have exclusive rights to community, worship, and growth. Camp does not have a corner on God’s work, Jesus’ love, and the Spirit’s power. Camp does not serve as the sole epicenter of the Divine Presence.
Rather, camp brings those things into sharp relief. Camp focuses our attention on what is always present. Camp directs our heart and mind to things of eternal reality. Camp unleashes the joy that we oft reject. Camp spills over with reminders of the ever-here ever-true God.
For that, we are grateful and blessed.
But if we do not take home with us the focused attention, eternal perspective, overflowing joy, and knowledge of the ever-here ever-true God, then we will have lost what cannot be measured. We will be less faithful followers of Jesus than the trees of the field and forest.
Dear Lord: let us clap for joy and rustle for praise, today and always, here and everywhere. Let us be more fully alive than trees of the field and forest. Let us live, in every way and place and moment, as your beloved children.
(Hear our prayer.)
You will live in joy and peace. The mountains and hills will burst into song, and the trees of the field will clap their hands! (Isaiah 55:12)
Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice! Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise! Let the fields and their crops burst out with joy! Let the trees of the forest rustle with praise before the Lord, for he is coming!” (Psalm 96:11-13)
The story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet has lately made itself at home in my soul where it continues to sink itself down deeply and stir things up unexpectedly. (You can read previous foot-washing thoughts here where I suggest that the story isn’t about actual foot washing at all.)
On the direct ministry front, we are today halfway through our camp assignment. That is, there is at least as much work still to do as has already been done. Perhaps more. I love camp. We all love camp. And middle-schoolers – oh how we do love them. There is no lack of love here for either the setting or the subjects.
Still, there is a hint of weariness. Camp life is exhausting. In every way.
So it would seem logical to rally our collective selves by calling out for more energy! more joy! more enthusiasm! more love!
And while all of those things are good, I think there is one thing only that will carry us from this midpoint to the finish line: humility. Active humility. The kind of humility that Jesus displayed when he washed his disciples’ feet.
That he was the one to do the washing – to stoop, to pour, to rinse, to dry – should change how we live. In every way.
As a human being, he was clearly the only one there who had a right to expect and demand that someone else be the foot washer. He was the leader. The rabbi. The teacher. And there is also this: “The Father had given him authority over everything” (John 13:3).
As God incarnate, he was obviously the only one there who had a right to expect and demand that someone else be the foot washer. He had come from God. He would return to God. He was with God. He was God.
What else does a fully man/fully God guy need to do to get his feet washed?
And let’s not forget that on a previous occasion, he had turned foot-washing water into superb wine. That a water-into-wine man should also be a water-onto-feet God speaks volumes about the one true Lord Almighty.
Jesus’ humility is overwhelming. And it is one of the final lessons he leaves with his disciples: no one is too good to be the foot-washer. When Jesus washed those dusty, dirty, calloused, worn, smelly, stinky feet, he was demonstrating the epitome of humble obedience and obedient humility.
The disciples may not have disobeyed outright when they – not a single one of them – did not offer to wash the others’ feet. But not disobeying is not necessarily the same thing as obeying.
And the disciples may not have displayed excessive pride by pointing to each other and saying, “You do it.” “No, you do it.” “NO, youdo it!” But not displaying pride is not necessarily the same thing as being humble. (As proof of that, Luke tells us that the disciples argued among themselves about who would be the greatest among them…after Jesus had already washed their feet.)
Washing someone else’s feet (metaphorically) is not the stuff of headlines. It is not the stuff of blogs or ‘grams or tweets. It’s not even the stuff of the Synoptic Gospels. Only John – many, many years after the fact – recognized the significance of what had taken place and recorded it so that we might learn.
Here, at the midpoint of camp – and really every other day of life – there is only one thing that will position us to live well: the humility of Christ. And not just the humility that willingly washes the feet (metaphorically) of campers (or parishioners or employees or subordinates or whatever) but rather the humility that willingly washes the feet of our fellow workers.
For here is a difficult truth: It is easy to serve campers. It is much harder to serve those who serve alongside us.
If we cannot foot-wash with and among and towards our fellow workers with a genuinely humble heart, we will not be able to foot-wash with and among and towards anyone else. Ever.
And if we do not know our true identity (infinitely loved and undeservedly redeemed child of God), if we have not grasped our clear purpose (to be salt, light, and the sweet fragrance of Christ), and if we do not have an eternal perspective (I will work not just for the here-and-now but for all that lies beyond my final breath on earth), we will never be able to get up from the table, wrap a towel around our waist, pour water into a basin, and begin to wash all the feet that need washing.
This is the Jesus we follow. This is the example he set. This is the task we have. Lord, grant us the grace we so desperately need in order to live as we should.
Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God. So he got up from the table… (John 13:3, NLT)
[Part of a series in which I muse about life at camp.]
It is a new week at camp. In one hour, 370 new campers and leaders will arrive for the collective explosion known as Day One. And we – who have been here for a while – must live and serve with both a second-Day-One-of-camp maturity (because hopefully we have learned some things) and also with a first-Day-One-of-camp excitement (because 370 people deserve no less).
That balance is not easy to strike, whether at camp or home. It requires a willing embrace of a disciplined life, which leads to deep roots of faith, which leads to fruitful living.
We love fruitful living.
We don’t so much love disciplined living.
We are a culture that adores first-Day-One highs. We are a people that celebrates first-Day-One emotions. We are a church that chases after first-Day-One moments.
Day One is a beautiful thing. But if Day One does not lead to deeper wisdom, wider love, and stronger faith, then Day One has been lived in vain.
The miracle of following Jesus is that the pursuit of deeper wisdom, wider love, and stronger faith does not require an abandonment of Day One joys, celebrations, and thanks. Just the opposite. Digging deeper and deeper allows us to follow farther and farther. Being anchored more firmly frees us to follow more expansively. Giving up my life of self allows me to gain true life in Christ.
These are crazy, wondrous, incomprehensible, and yet wholly believable truths.
So we race towards this second-Day-One extravaganza with a first-Day-One joy. And we do this because (oh, glory!) that is what Jesus has graciously invited us to do.
“And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness!” (Colossians 2:6-7)
[Part of a series in which I muse about life at camp.]
There she is – one of countless high-school students who are voluntarily serving at camp this summer – waging battle with an uncooperative and unmanageable sea creature. The giant vacuum. The massive yellow tubular monstrosity that does indeed have a mind of its own.
It’s enough to get anyone down.
But the dining room floor, you see, must be vacuumed after each meal. Each and every meal. Because, well, sometimes food drops on the floor, and if the food isn’t cleaned up after each and every meal, then the floor won’t be wonderful at the next meal.
And wonderful floors are important when you are trying to show middle school campers how much you really truly love them…even if they never notice the wonderful floors and even if they never know how the wonderful floors stay wonderful.
Some people might save the wonderful floors for the last big meal of camp. But at this camp (and so many others), the wonderful floors happen right from the get go. And never stop happening. No matter how tired or bored or discouraged the tamers of the sea monster may become.
“When the campers saw the wonderful floor, not knowing where it had come from (though, of course, the teenagers on work crew knew), they said to their leader, ‘My school food is okay, and the cafeteria is alright – but something about this place is different. Awesome. Wonderful. Every day is the best day ever.” This miraculous sign at camp in the midwest was not the first time Jesus’ love had been displayed by teenagers. And those same teenagers believed in him even more deeply.” (John 2:9-10, paraphrased)
Let us taste His goodness. Let us drink His love. And let us do it in a banquet hall with wonderful floors.
It is 11 pm on the first day of camp as I write this.
The beautifully explosive middle school descent (also known as Day One of Camp) was a smashing success. They are here – all of them, in all their glory. And because they are here – all of them, in all their glory – it seemed wondrously wise to celebrate. Late at night. In the dark. Long after dinner, games, gathering, and discussion.
Because what could be better than a late night celebration (aka obstacle course) in the dark? Look here and see what I mean:
Can you see it, the wildly energetic celebration of life (extended across one parking lot, two football fields, one patch of woods, a forest path, and a beachfront) right there in the very dark of very darkness? Those blue lights on the left are flashlights, guiding small groups of the larger raucous crowd across a hilly field. Those two lights on the right are tiki torches, also known as The Official Starting Line. There are lots and lots of people there, mingling in the darkness, so ready to take off running. Look.
There. Do you see them? Masses of middle schoolers, lined up politely and patiently (relatively speaking).
Truth: the world is full of people living in the very dark of very darkness. They run from one light to another, hoping to arrive safely, hoping to find friends along the way, hoping to find something worth living for. Mostly they are hoping to find a place where the light is more than just a tiny spot of world-centric bobbing and weaving.
They are looking for the only light that satisfies, the only light that pierces the darkest of dark, the only light that is steady and constant and true, the only light that embraces wholly, the only light that breathes love.
They are looking for Jesus, even if they don’t know it yet. And we are desperately hoping to reflect his light in the very dark of very darkness – rather than reflecting ourselves, which is an ever-present danger in a world that celebrates self.
And though the very dark of very darkness can sometimes overwhelm and suffocate, it does not have the last word because the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguishit.
We are for Jesus. We are for light. And against all reason and rationale, Jesus is for us.
[Part of a series in which I muse about life at camp.]
In 3 hours (180 minutes / 10,800 seconds) masses of middle-schoolers will descend upon this place. And what a magnificent descent it will be. Loud. Energetic. Excited. Boisterous. Caffeinated. Frenetic, some might say.
Glorious, we would say. Because with those masses of middle-schoolers will come life as only middle-schoolers can live it.
And in this place here, those masses of identity-formational stage of life middle-schoolers will (by the grace of God) encounter life as only Jesus can give it.
It is quiet right now. Beautifully, soothingly, breathtakingly quiet – not because all is at rest, but rather because all are at work. A Sabbath kind of work. A worshipping kind of work. A restoring kind of work. The kind of work that is absolutely necessary in order for life on earth to meet life in Christ.
It is quiet here – even in the octaball court. (Which is both miraculous and creepy.) But soon – (wonderfully, excitingly soon) the still silence will be beautifully shattered in a way that only happens at camp.
Be still, my soul – in peace, in thanks, in adoration – and in preparation for the earth-shattering explosion that even now is barreling down the highway in this direction. We await in expectant joy!
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.