Summers at the Ranch

When a dating relationship is ready for the next level, most girls bring their boyfriends home to meet their parents. I brought mine to summer camp. The year I met Rob and fell in love, I invited him to join me for the summer at my favorite place in all the world — Happy T Ranch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Run by the historic New England Fellowship of Evangelicals, Happy T had faithfully shared the Gospel with youths since 1957. My dad and his brothers attended camp there in the 1960s. My sisters and I followed suit in the 1990s. Now, I worked there.

When I began working at camp, I was wrestling with my faith. College life was forcing me to reevaluate the belief system in which I’d been raised. I had a lot of questions and a lot of doubts. At Happy T, I spent each summer on staff with other college students who also were making their faith their own. We all stood at that critical juncture, the moment in life when the teachings of our childhoods would either fall away or somehow become our own. In the summers before I met Rob, Happy T was the forge in which my emerging adult faith was formed. I remember nights spent sitting on cabin front stoops, friends voicing questions about God they’d never dared ask. I remember paddling out to the middle of the lake and walking through the woods, sensing God’s presence in new, intimate ways as I fumbled my way toward Him. So when I met the guy I wanted to marry, I knew I had to bring him to this special place. I fell in love with Rob at Happy T, but I’d fallen in love with Jesus there first.

Rob hadn’t been at camp for a week when I started to wonder if this had all been a bad idea. My pensive English major wasn’t exactly happy clappy. “Uncle Rob” was more interested in sitting and talking than in playing loud, crazy games with a horde of 8-10 year olds. He walked around camp every day with a book stuffed in the back of his jeans, in hopes of grabbing a couple of extra reading moments between events! Those first four weeks of junior camp really stretched Rob that summer. There are some days I know he was miserable. So many children. So little quiet. Sometimes I think he stayed afloat solely because of his daily canoeing classes on the lake and the funny letters his little brother would mail him on brightly colored paper.

As summer wore on, camp programming shifted to weeks for teenagers. Suddenly, I saw Rob come alive. No longer required to feign enthusiastic participation in crazy field games, Rob found his place chatting it up with groups of adolescents. Rob loved deep conversation, and his attentiveness to students attracted faithful followers. During afternoon free time, Rob hung out beside the Snack Shack where I worked, talking with teen boys over milkshakes and smiling at me through the window. When the cups emptied, he’d come in to buy a plate of fries and chat for a moment before heading back out to a picnic table outside the Tabernacle meeting hall where other boys would settle in for conversation. I always marveled at the way Rob was so natural with teenagers. Where I felt awkward, he knew exactly how to act, what to say. Best of all, Rob’s own wrestlings with faith made no question off limits. A student who wasn’t sure he believed in God would find Rob a listening ear and a sympathetic companion.

“Only Christ could have brought us all together, in this place, doing such absurd but necessary things,” wrote Kathleen Norris in The Cloister Walk. I come back to this line time and again when I try to describe my Happy T summers. The three years that I served in ministry there were certainly filled with absurdity. The time I dressed up as Lot’s wife (i.e., a pillar of salt) for a themed dinner night. The summer I hid for hours in full camouflage in a hollowed out log in the woods for a teen scavenger hunt. The year I developed heat exhaustion from lifeguarding without sunscreen or water on the outer dock. The romances and friendships and drama of scores of college students living and working together all summer.

My years at Happy T also were filled with the most necessary things. Conversations that shaped my faith. Serving beside the man who would become my husband. Seeing God move and work in children whose hearts were tender to His Spirit. Happy T Ranch formed my adult faith through relationships like the ones Rob made so easily. In later years, Rob and I often joked that we never went through a lovestruck phase in our relationship. Instead, we jumped right into unglamorous ministry together.

Believe it or not, camp registration season is opening now. I’m already receiving emails about the coming summer. I look at my two oldest children, and I wish I could somehow send them back in time, back to the Happy T I knew and loved. I wish I could buy them a milkshake and a plate of fries and send them to a picnic table outside the Tab to sit and talk with Rob. As I see my son and daughter begin the long, crazy trip toward adulthood, I wish they could access his wisdom in their adolescent years. Rob loved having energetic and deep discussions with our kids. He always wanted to really know them. I know they will have questions he would have been so good at answering, concerns to which he would have listened carefully. I’ll do the very best I can in his absence. Even so, it breaks my heart that my children will grow up without him.

When I think of the summers I spent at camp, I am reminded that God works in ways we can never anticipate. He orchestrates relationships that bring us love and life and hope. He meets us in our questions and doubts with unconditional love and acceptance. Though I do not understand, I choose to believe that God knows what He is doing. That even in grief He is working all things for our good. That someday, when they need it most, there will be a man or woman with a heart like Rob’s to sit and listen when my children need to wrestle with their faith.

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