Shaped by Faith and Fear at Summer Camp

How preteen adventures and my mom’s hand-written letters helped form my faith and identity
Shaped by Faith and Fear at Summer Camp
Image: SCISETTI ALFIO / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

This past week I was cleaning out the large collection of correspondence I've kept since I was 10. Birthday and Christmas cards from grandparents, letters in rough cursive from grade school friends, graduation well-wishes, thank you notes, postcards—you name it, I kept it. Every couple of years I go through the box, select those that still touch or amuse me, and recycle the rest.

Although the stack shrinks with each sorting, there is one batch of correspondence I don't think I'll ever throw out: the notes my mom sent me during my summers at sleep-away camp.

I was constantly homesick during those weeks. Although I don't possess any examples of what I was writing home, I can easily recall or imagine what preoccupied my adolescent heart at the time. I was worried about making friends, anxious about learning to ride a horse, and downright terrified of poison ivy. I felt intensely out of my element, but knowing that my mom was thinking of me helped me feel less isolated in my sadness and gave me courage to press on. She pointed me to the truly eternal promises in God's Word, reminding me with Bible verses (especially Psalm 139) that Jesus was always with me and knew my sadness, and that I had nothing to fear because he knew me and would protect me.

I couldn't see then, at the age of 12 or 13, what my mother could. I couldn't appreciate how the challenges and victories of summer camp would impact my character, my friendships, and my relationship with Christ. But I can see now how those days in the Wisconsin woods ingrained in me a sense of God's majesty, evident in his creation and his provision. Sunsets, stars, and campfires became touchstones for me—I couldn't explain how, but in encountering them, I encountered God's presence.

Those moments built a kind of courage in me that opened me up to other discoveries. Although nothing close to an outdoorsy kid, those camp days inspired a surprising love of rock climbing completely at odds with my fear of falling and contempt of dirt. Learning to steer a canoe taught me how to step into roles of leadership; I discovered that even if I would otherwise prefer not to direct a voyage, it was more responsible for me to acknowledge my skills and put them to good use.

Some metaphors were easier to swallow than others. Lessons like "Sometimes you need to paddle through the rainstorm instead of wait for it to clear" were hard to accept. It was also at summer camp that I first experienced the pain of a drifting friendship and the rub-you-raw struggle that forgiveness can be. I experienced prayer that was, for the first time in my young life, a long haul without any sign of resolution. I had to learn that my conception of healing was often (read: usually) very different from God's—but that his was unfailingly better.

I attended summer camp for two to four weeks every summer for five years. I was relieved when each session ended: happy to leave the noise, dirt, and sand behind and return home to my normal setting. But as much as I may have viewed those weeks as islands—removed, remote, anomalous—those experiences have had a way of lingering in my life.

Rereading my mother's words of love and her promises to pray for me, I'm consistently struck by how much I still need to hear those truths. Homesickness isn't restricted to summer camp! With every big change or development (in recent history: first job, first move, first heartbreak), I have to re-learn what faith looks like as I take on new tasks, lose and make friends, or encounter unknown territories. I'm continuing to build on that growing ground of my youth.

I think that's why my mother's letters mean so much to me. Although more than a decade has passed since I first received them, I still need the guidance, shelter, hope, and perspective they offer. This summer I'm making a big move across the country in order to attend graduate school. I am, once again, worried about finding community, anxious to learn new skills, and downright terrified of poison ivy (some things never change).

I think I'll be bringing those letters with me.

Ashley Gray is a reader and writer who blogs at "Thoroughly Booked."

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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