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Monday, June 04, 2012

Be Careful What You Pray For


© 2012 by Tom King

Back in my halcyon days at summer camp I enjoyed a brief period in my life where I felt strong, highly-skilled at my job and confident that I knew a little about everything that needed to be known.  I worked for five summers at Lone Star Camp during my academy, college and early teaching days. I realize now, I was attending God’s summer school for emerging Christians.

One camp director that I highly respected used to describe me as “walking to the beat of a different drummer”. I grew a beard every summer, wore leather moccasins and a leather headband that my buddy and I had made from scraps from leathercraft class. I’d passed a very tough life-saving class and had advanced from garbage man to small craft safety instructor and for possibly the first, last and only time in my life felt competent to do my job. 

I learned a valuable, if uncomfortable lesson one particular summer. We had a Texas Conference youth director who’d been imported from the South American mission field. We gave him a fairly tough time. He was used to being obeyed. We were used to doing things our own way. Our camp director ran interference, between the big boss and the line staff and kept things pretty happy all in all.  Then teen camp came.
We had a group of boys that drove up from Houston. Their dad was a doctor. They brought their own skis and ski jackets. They wore sunglasses and had attitude. You could tell right off they’d come planning to do things pretty much their own way.

The staff managed to shut them down by threatening to kick them all out of skiing and put them in a nature class for the week. After that, we managed to get a more cooperative attitude from the boys, but all week long they chafed under the reins we kept on them.  By Sabbath they were ready to explode. Word got around Saturday afternoon that the boys were planning to “tear the camp up” that night.

This spooked the big boss and just before campfire that evening he announced to staff that after campfire he was taking all the kids over to the swimming area for a watermelon scramble. “That’ll wear them down,” he said. “Then they’ll be too tired to get into trouble tonight.” The lifeguards went pale. 

A watermelon scramble is a contest we do at the water show as part of the week’s ending activities. We’d had to cancel the popular event that week and the kids had been very disappointed. The scramble works like this.  You place a greased watermelon in the middle of the swimming area, line up two cabins full of kids on opposite docks, blow a whistle and they all go after the floating melon. The winner is the cabin that manages to wrestle the melon free from the others and drag it to their own dock. The side that gets it out of the water wipes off the grease and eats the watermelon. The game can get rough so we always have lots of lifeguards in the water, on the towers and docks to keep it clean and make sure no one drowns. The scramble is tough enough to lifeguard with 30 or 40 wrestling kids in the water in the daytime. The idea of doing it at night was horrifying. 

“Sir,” one guard held up her hand. “That’s awfully dangerous – doing a watermelon scramble at night.” I thought she was understating the case, myself.

“We have plenty of lifeguards,” the boss dismissed her objection. “When I was in Chile, we used to take 200 kids to the beach with just two adults to supervise.” 

“Well, yeah,” one wit muttered under his breath. “But in America, we actually like our children.”  Someone jabbed him in the ribs aside from a snicker or two, nothing more was said. We knew the boss too well. The more we pushed him, the more firmly he would stand by his decision. He walked away and left us talking worriedly among ourselves.

“What’ll we do?” one guard said as we put our heads together. This is crazy!” 

Many ideas were tossed around. We thought about refusing to participate, but we knew he’d have fired most of us and sent us all home. Then he’d have done the watermelon scramble anyway – at least he made us believe so. We were afraid not to be there lest a kid drown and spoil our perfect camp record. Finally, one lifeguard looked off down the lake and saw a single dark cloud scudding across the sky, far off and low down above the trees. 

“We could pray for rain!” he suggested half-heartedly. 

We all looked skeptically down the lake at that one forlorn little cloud on the horizon. “Might as well,” another agreed. “I don’t see any other way out of this. You can’t do a watermelon scramble if there’s lightning.”

So we made a little circle at the back of the campfire area and we prayed for rain. Actually, we got rather more specific than that.  We prayed for a nice big lightning storm to give us an excuse to halt the watermelon scramble. We also added a prayer that God would help prevent our young toughs from starting a riot that night.  For the rest of the campfire program, we watched the horizon anxiously.

Incredibly, that little black cloud grew. The sky turned blacker and blacker. As we stood for the prayer song at the end of campfire, fat drops of rain began to fall.  As we sang “Amen” lightning popped overhead, lighting up the sky.

“We’re going to have to cancel the watermelon scramble,” the boss announced, a touch of irritation in his voice. “Hurry back to your cabins now,” he instructed the counselors. Our little cadre of lifeguards grinned smugly. God had answered our prayers. 

It was very hard not to sing the “Nanny, nanny boo boo.” song as we headed back to toward the cabins feeling pretty full of ourselves.

The rain ratcheted up in intensity. Long peals of thunder rolled across the sky. Lightning cracked. Everybody picked up the pace till we were pelting down the trail for the cabins as the sky seemed to open up. We managed to get the kids inside and the shutters pulled down just as the worst storm I ever experienced at Lone Star Camp unleashed its fury on us. 

Once we got the kids in the cabins, the waterfront staff still had to get back to our own cabins. It was about then that we got the lightning we’d asked for.  A group of us took shelter in the open sided dining pavilion. We wound up huddled close by the big stone fireplace as rain lashed the structure violently, whipping up in sheets under the edges of the roof. It was pretty scary. The lightning popped round us, blasting trees and light poles. It looked for all the world like God was angry with us.

One of the lifeguards, Jack, made a run for the showers from the staff cabin in the middle of the storm. He always made the trip wearing only a towel and flip-flops and carrying a bar of soap.  As he crossed the little meadow near cabin 1 (where our young hooligans were staying) a lightning bolt struck a nearby tree.  Jack did a half flip and landed flat on his back in a puddle, dazed. His towel was blown off, but came fluttering down to landed strategically across his waist. He managed to get back up on his feet and stumbled down the trail to take shelter in the shower house.


In cabin 1, the counselor responsible for our would-be terrorists, my buddy Mark, also a lifeguard, had got everyone inside and they were all hunkered under the covers, listening to what sounded like an artillery barrage outside. These guys, Mark told me later, were really looking nervous, lying there on steel army cots while vast bolts of unfettered electricity raged around them. Mark had been having worship before bedtime every night that week and none of the boys had once shown the slightest interest in participating. Mark had pretty much given up on them, so he made his own prayers and was about to flip off the single light bulb that dangled at the center of the cabin.

Without warning, a terrific blast and blinding flash of light struck the cabin. The overhead light bulb exploded raining shards of glass down on everyone. Electrical outlets spurted blue flames. A couple of the guys screamed involuntarily.

The room went black and silence fell, the only sound the steady rush of the rainstorm beating on the shutters.

“Counselor,” a voice asked timorously in the dark. “Can we pray now?”

Cleanup the next day was massive. Limbs and trees were down all over camp. Trashcans were turned over; gear scattered everywhere. But the kids didn’t “tear up the camp”. It seemed that God had done it for them.

Since that night, I’ve stopped telling God how to answer my prayers. I decided that from then on I would just ask for His help and leave the actual method of answering my prayers up to Him. 
It’s much safer that way.

Tom King



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