Last week, I found myself staring at the glowing stars on display in the splendor of the wide open Oregon night sky at Grove Christian Camp, just outside of Cottage Grove. It was approaching 1:30am. The previous hour was spent chatting with two of my campers one-on-one, each of whom poured out their hearts and were brutally real and honest with me about what was going on in their lives. By Ben Kraker Last week, I found myself staring at the glowing stars on display in the splendor of the wide open Oregon night sky at Grove Christian Camp, just outside of Cottage Grove. It was approaching 1:30am. The previous hour was spent chatting with two of my campers one-on-one, each of whom poured out their hearts and were brutally real and honest with me about what was going on in their lives. The last camper had just gone back inside the cabin, and I was left there, alone, to reflect on everything that had been happening that week. As I sat in the still darkness, I was reminded of a promise I had made myself. I realized I had broken that promise. Just three years ago, after a depressing and seemingly fruitless summer serving as a program director at a camp in my home state of Michigan, I promised myself that I would never go back into camp ministry. During that harsh summer, I was awakened in the middle of the night numerous times by counselors who were sensing intense spiritual warfare tangibly occurring around them – we later found out that on those same nights, one of the camp leaders was having heated arguments and talks of divorce with his estranged wife. Sadly, after that summer, they divorced and the camp was left with a large void in leadership. Did I mention that was my first time serving as a camp program director? To put it lightly, I wasn’t very good at it quite yet. I stepped on a lot of people’s toes that summer trying to bring, what I thought, were needed changes to the camp. Needless to say, it was a rough summer.
Isn’t it funny that when we promise ourselves that we’ll never go back into a certain area of ministry because of frustrations and let-downs, God somehow has a way of bringing us back to those very areas? He must get quite a laugh out of us.
My eyes fixed on the stars, I replayed the night’s happenings in my head. I figured it was just going to be another night in the cabin, filled with wild and crazy horseplay, camper’s outbursts of laughter just when I thought I’d be able to fall asleep, and the occasional ridiculously dramatized, “Good night, Ben! I love you!”
But there was so much more that happened that night. And I did not even see it coming. As I was laying there in my sleeping bag trying to get comfortable, one of my campers – who also happened to be a student from my youth group – called out to me, “Good night, cabin Ben! I love you!” To which I replied, “Good night, Jason. I love you, too.” Little did I know that Jason was trying to bait me to say that, so he could shoot back with a sarcastic joke that ended up pushing the line between funny and offensive.
“CHILD MOLESTER! PEDOPHILE!” Jason started to yell. All because I replied back to him,“I love you, too.” Though Jason meant nothing by his remarks – in fact, he thought he was pretty funny – I was upset. Those words epitomize the foulness and depravity of our world and should never be used in a joking matter. What bothered me even more is just the fact that Jason uttered those words to me, his youth pastor, after all the time and sacrifices I’ve made to be there for him. Even though he was joking, I was hurt.
I jumped out of bed and quickly addressed Jason in front of the other campers. “Calling somebody those words as a joke is totally unacceptable. Jason, if I hear you referring to anybody like that again, you will be sent home. That goes for all of you!” I bellowed out.
The cabin became silent. “Finally, peace and quiet. Now I can get some sleep!” I thought. But I was wrong.
“Stop @#$! squirting me with that $%^@ squirt gun!!” I heard another one of my campers yell. I would have jumped out of bed again, but I just didn’t have the energy. “What now….” I mumbled to myself, along with mutterings and groans as I slowly sat up in my bed. “Who just said that?” I asked.
“I did! Somebody keeps squirting me with a squirt gun!!” Evan yelled.
“Evan, that type of language is totally unacceptable here, even if you were squirted. If I hear any other words like that come out of your mouth, you will be disciplined!” I said.
After collecting all the squirt guns that I now regretted handing out earlier in the week, I sat down on my bed, pretty heated and upset about the last ten minutes in the cabin. All I wanted to do was sleep. But I certainly was not about to enjoy sleep any time soon. I cannot just fall asleep when I’m upset. So I sat on my bed as the chatter and noise in the cabin grew as everyone was trying to figure out who squirted Evan.
“Hey, what’s Ben doing over there? He’s just sitting on his bed.” Another of my campers exclaimed from the other side of the cabin. I didn’t think anyone could see me; it was dark in there, after all. Apparently there was a ray of light coming in the window from a light post outside the cabin. Just enough light for my campers to see my bed.
I was frustrated and tired, not really wanting to have to explain why I was sitting on my bed. I swallowed hard, prayed a quick prayer that I wouldn’t explode, and slowly opened my mouth.
“I’m sitting here staying quiet because if I were to say or do anything right now, I would probably regret it. Two of you in this cabin obviously have a hard time controlling your tongue. You don’t realize the impact your words have on other people. I want both of you to know that I’m upset right now. When you guys say things like that, or when you make a stupid decision that messes up your life, I stop and think to myself ‘Will they ever get it? Is what I’m doing even making a difference?’”
I stopped talking to collect my thoughts. Maybe my tiredness was making me overly sensitive. But my ‘talk’ sure did quiet down the cabin! It was so silent that you could hear the zippers on the sleeping bags clink together as everyone settled into bed.
“You know what? I’m probably not going to sleep very well. In fact, I need to get out of the cabin and cool off a little bit right now,” I said.
I got up and stumbled around in the dark looking for my flip flops.
“I’ll be outside if any of the two of you want to talk,” I muttered as I walked towards the door.
Before I could walk 20 yards away from the cabin, I heard the cabin door creak open followed by the patter sound of bare feet hitting the pavement. I turned around, and there was Jason.
“I’m sorry I said those things about you. I was just trying to be funny. I didn’t even think about what I was saying,” Jason said, big tears beginning to well up in his eyes.
“Jason, I forgive you. You just need to understand that your words can have a deep impact on people. Your words are powerful, and can really hurt people. I just want you to understand that,” I said.
The conversation that followed was so fresh and raw. Jason acknowledged that he was having a hard time taming his tongue. He asked me to pray that he would be able to control his tongue better and set an example for others to follow.
Jason gave me a great big hug and headed back for the cabin. His heart-felt apology and desire to change was so encouraging for me, his youth pastor, to witness.
I sat down on the steps that led to the cabin door, thanking God for working in Jason’s life. As I prayed, the door opened behind me. Evan came out and sat next to me.
“I’m sorry for cussing in the cabin,” he said, holding his head in his hands.
“I forgive you,” I told him.
For a brief moment in time, it was silent as we both sat on the steps to the cabin. I felt Evan had something he wanted to talk to me about, so I just stayed silent in expectation.
“Well, since you've been real with me, I suppose I'll be real with you,” Evan said.
“My family goes to church and all, but they’re different people at home. I can’t stand them,” he told me.
“So you’re saying they’re fake?” I asked.
“Well… I guess you could say that. They act all Christian when we’re at church and when we have our pastor over for dinner. But at home, when it’s just us, we’re always yelling and nothing seems to go right,” Evan explained.
A minute more of silence.
“Sometimes I really have a hard time believing in God and Jesus and stuff. Why do my parents act so ‘Holier than Thou’ at church, but live like God didn’t exist when they are at home? I have a really hard time believing God when I have to put up with them every day,” he went on.
We talked for nearly an hour on the steps of our cabin. I explained to him that his doubt didn't shake God – no matter how many doubts or questions he had, God was still reigning on high.
I challenged Evan to look at his doubt as an opportunity to get to know God better. I asked him to think of all the doubts he had been experiencing. I told him that instead of doing his morning devotions the next day, he should just write the doubts down on a piece of paper and show me when he had written them down.
Evan continued to spill his guts about the struggles and doubts he was facing in his life. He told me this was the first time he opened up about them. He mentioned how he wasn’t even going to come to camp this year, but changed his mind at the last minute. I was amazed by what God was doing in Evan’s life, and how it all started because he dropped the f-bomb in the cabin.
After we finished talking, Evan went into the cabin. I sat on the steps, alone under the stars, remembering how I said I would never go into camp ministry again. In the quiet stillness of the moment, I thanked God for bringing me back to camp and for the work He did that night in the lives of Jason and Evan. What if I never went back to camp ministry like I originally said? I would have missed out on those conversations with Evan and Jason.
My staring contest with the bright Oregon sky was quickly coming to an end. I decided it was time to go to bed, so I thanked God for showing up that night and asked Him to give me a good night’s rest in the little time I had to sleep.
Morning came awfully fast. During the scheduled morning quiet time, I checked to make sure Evan was making his list of doubts. He was. In five minutes, he had already filled up about seven lines of notebook paper. I prayed that God would reveal Himself to Evan.
Later that day, the campers were given 30 minutes of quiet time so that they could sit in silence in order to more clearly listen to the voice of God. During this time, Evan begged God to show himself if he indeed was real. Evan had seen enough fakeness from his family and just needed to know if God could be trusted.
In His own mysterious, unexplainable way, God directed this camper to several passages of Scripture that directly addressed the doubts he was experiencing. God put specific passages and scripture references in Evans's mind, and those scriptures were exactly what he needed to read.
After the quiet time ended, Evan came and sat next to me on a bench where I had been praying. He pulled out the notebook in which he had listed his doubts, and next to each doubt were the scriptures God had given to him. He put a giant X over the list of doubts and at the bottom of the page wrote, “I have all the proof I need now. God, thanks for showing me that you are real.”
I sat on that bench, tears streaming down my face. In that moment, I promised myself that I would return to camp next year to direct another week, realizing how much God accomplished in the last 14 hours.
But who knows, now that I promised myself I’d return to camp, maybe God will have another moment of “divine humor” and instead send me to do prison ministry with Russian inmates! Whatever the case, I will always remember how faithful God had been to His children that week of camp.