Growing up in Michigan, I went to church camp at least twice each year. Once in the summer, our youth group made an exodus from our suburban lifestyles, and into a wilderness immersion. Then, every fall or winter, that same group would pile our gangly arms and legs into the church van, a few brave volunteers leading the charge, and we’d bounce and lumber our way through the ice and snow to the little cabins in the woods.
Church camp was nothing fancy. Every year, I’d arrive at camp, clutching my belongings to my chest and trying to keep everything clean for as long as possible. I knew once I set my stuff down, it was free game for dust and spiders. I’d ask myself why I subjected myself to this every year, and I secretly vowed I’d never be back.
But God was big at camp. At camp, God was big in me.
At camp, what I got was free. Free, as in released. Free, as in let loose. Free, as in unfettered and uncaged. I ran and ran and ran until I thought my legs had turned to lead. I laughed until my lungs had emptied themselves and I lay on the ground or in the dirt gasping for air and clinging to my friends in a silly, hilarious, liberated embrace. I sang songs that I couldn’t get out of my head for weeks.
On the last day, I’d shove my filthy clothes and socks and toothbrush into my duffel bag. I’d gather up my stinky sleeping bag into a pile, and I’d climb back into that church van with the rest. Someone always started a round of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” and someone else wondered if we could sing it all the way home. We never did.
I don’t know when I first noticed it, but each time I went to camp, I made a habit of sitting next to the window on the drive home. It was the window on the right side. I’d lean my head against that window and wipe away a clear space through the fog on the glass. We bounced along the dirt roads, under overhanging branches, scratching mosquito bites and trying to stay awake. And I squinted through the glass to read the very last sign posted, just before our van hit asphalt and rolled back to civilization. Every time, I took those words as my blessing – my personal benediction.
And just what did that exiting sign say?
Knowing that camp can be miraculous, and that it makes a girl breathe God in big, huge, gulps of air, some wise person had painted simple words on the back side of the sign that had welcomed us as we’d arrived a few days before: Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its mold.(Romans 12:2, NLT)
Decades have passed since I was a camper, and I’ve been squeezed by and have tried to squeeze others into molds no one was ever meant to occupy. You too? I’ve also learned a lot about what it means to give and receive grace for the journey. Thank God for grace, huh? It’s so much easier to breathe when grace leads the way. I haven’t outgrown my need for big gulps of God, even though I have outgrown summer camp.
Deidra Riggs is a writer, speaker and pastor’s wife, living in Lincoln, Nebraska. Her first book, Every Little Thing: Making a World of Difference Right Where You Are (Baker Books), is available for pre-order and will be in stores in October 2015. Deidra’s writing has also appeared at (in)courage and at Acts of Faith for the Washington Post. To invite Deidra to speak at your event, visit deidrariggs.com.