Maybe I am just feeling a little nostalgic right now, having enjoyed another beautiful Sabbath in northern New England, but it is hard to underestimate the significance of one, seemingly mundane decision. Eighteen years ago this summer, I made a decision that would change the course of my life.
I was born and raised in Massachusetts, one of the three states that comprises what is known as southern New England (I know many people already know those states comprise southern New England; but I’m sure there are also many who do not. In fact, I’ve found that many Americans don’t even know what states comprise New England at all). For much of my childhood, the three New England states that were north of the Massachusetts border – Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine – were anything but relevant to me. Yes, I had aunts and uncles and cousins that lived there, but I had no experience in those three states that captured my imagination – or heart.
In fact, I remember that I would often snicker when I read the bottom of Maine’s license plate: Vacationland. “Vacationland?” I used to think, “Who in the world is going to Maine for vacation?” To me, the state – and, to some extent, New Hampshire and Vermont as well – was comprised of remote trailer homes and beat up cars and truck stops and places one would pass through to get somewhere else.
But the summer I turned 13, everything changed.
Growing up, I used to attend Camp Winnekeag, our Seventh-day Adventist youth camp in Massachusetts, just about year-round, it seemed. I would go there for pastors’ retreats with my dad, church winter retreats with our church, and summer camp in the summer. Somewhere along the line, I got Camp Winnekeag-ed out. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that when I was there as a summer camper when I was nine or ten, I came down with terrible nausea and I ended up going home early because I was so sick, vomiting everywhere. It was not a pleasant experience.
A few years later, I got the fateful invitation. My cousin, Devin, who lived – and still lives – in New Hampshire, invited me to go with him to Teen Camp at Camp Lawroweld, our Seventh-day Adventist summer camp in East Podunk, err, Weld, Maine. I don’t know if I deliberated much over it, or whether I needed much convincing, but I decided to give it a shot and see if the “unsophisticated” folk in Maine could show me a good time.
My uncle Terry, Devin’s Dad, drove us from their house in North Conway, New Hampshire, to Weld, Maine. I still remember the drive to this day. After passing beautiful lakes and rushing rivers, we turned onto the dirt road that led to the old camp.
And then it happened. We took the right-hand turn into the entrance of Camp Lawroweld, and it was like a virus was injected into my bloodstream. Northern New England had instantly stolen my heart.
No longer was northern New England trailer homes and trucks stops. It was the sound of a crying, lonely loon, echoing through the night sky across a serene lake. It was singalongs beside a crackling campfire. It was whitewater rafting down daring rivers. It was magnificent views from breathtaking mountaintops.
It was home.
For the next few summers, I returned as a camper to Camp Lawroweld. And then, when I was old enough, I was granted the privilege of working there. It turned into a seven year affair, coupled with trips north for Music Clinics and Camp Meetings and any event I could participate in.
I soon discovered the even greater charm of Maine and northern New England. Lighthouses along the rocky coast. Old fishing villages, lined with lobster traps. White-steepled churches, surrounded by the most brilliant fall colors. Mountaintop lakes, that felt blissful after strenuous hikes. It was nothing but charm and beauty and near-heavenly scenery and experiences.
My senior year of college, I sent my resume to every single Seventh-day Adventist conference in North America. The dozen or so conferences that actually responded all had the same message: thanks, but we’re not hiring. I worked that following summer at camp, once again, and then I was prepared to return to Andrews University to enter into the Seminary.
But about a week before camp was over, I got an interesting question from our camp director. He said he got a call from the conference, and they wanted to know how committed I was to going to the Seminary. What started as an innocent question turned into an interview to serve as an interim pastor in Vermont. A few days later, as I was driving with Camille to our place in Nova Scotia, I got the phone call from the conference secretary, asking me if I would be willing to accept the invitation (I still remember the exact spot I turned off route 9 – also affectionately called the “airline” – to field the call on my cell phone. It is, ironically, just a hop, skip, and a jump from where I now pastor).
Since that fateful day 18 years ago, I have wedded my Maine girlfriend, had two children in these northern woods (though not literally, of course), and pastored seven churches. Over the last few years, I have had opportunities to move on; to pastor West or South or somewhere else. But the Lord hasn’t nudged me away from this heaven on earth.
It is, after all, the greatest mission field in America as well. And it is mine to conquer.
All because I made a seemingly insignificant decision to attend summer camp at a place I had never heard of.