I’m CSPC member Steve Chesney, and I have been on the Young Life staff for the past 48 years. Each summer Cathy and I spend a month at a Young Life camp, where I have the privilege of sharing the Gospel with high school kids. This summer took us to Cairn Brae, a stunningly beautiful YL camp in Scotland. Rolling Highland hills, time-worn castle ruins, and lakeside breezes provided the backdrop as we served about 200 kids from U.S. military families based in Germany and Italy. Here’s how God had us living deeply with Him during those weeks.
First I have to give you a sense of these military kids’ lives. ‘Where are you from? ’ is a non-starter . These kids are from nowhere- and everywhere. Their average length of stay in one place is two or three years. Many have abruptly packed up their lives and moved eight to ten times in their short 16 years . Ramstein, Vilseck, Stuttgart, Ansbach, Hohenfels- these were just a few of the bases they called home. As you might guess, relational attachment is difficult for them, and rare. Their parent (usually Dad) can be deployed suddenly, for six weeks or six months or maybe more. And when he returns, it’s often NOT the happy, tearful, ‘Welcome home!’ surprise we see on TV news . Dad’s return often disrupts the new normal with yet another new normal. Everything can become stressful, unfamiliar, and unstable. Again. Throw in the general volatility of our 2023 world and it’s no wonder military kids feel particularly fragile. High anxiety and low self-esteem are their common companions. To watch many of them let their guard down day-by-day at Cairn Brae , and begin to relax, smile, even belly laugh… it’s hard to put the feeling into words . Even better, some began to listen, trust, and believe in Jesus , and melt into the arms of a Father who promises to never leave or forsake. What indescribable JOY It was for Cathy & me to be a part of it all.
Does every teenager come to know Jesus at Cairn Brae? No, certainly not. 2 scenes that played out at the same moment 1 night highlight the extremes. Each week on night 5, after the message of the Cross, we had a camp-wide 15 mins of silence. During that time, Sophia sobbed non-stop while her YL leader, Trish , held her in silence. Meanwhile, Justin & Joel worked out (yes, push-ups & sit-ups) in the middle of the open field where other kids were having their first conversation with God. It’s true, ‘The same sun that melts the ice, hardens the clay.’ Between those 2 extremes, God’s Spirit was on the move at Cairn Brae. The final night of each week, we had a ‘Say-So’ where we invited anyone who’s found new life in Jesus to stand up & say so (“Let the redeemed of the Lord say so.” Psalm 107:2). Here are a few Say So moments that stood out:
In my 50 years of YL ministry, I don’t think I’ve seen such a dramatic, dark-to-light transformation in a teenager in such a few short days. On day 1, Ava was a 16-year-old girl with multi-colored hair & skeleton-goth-like clothing…sullen, friendless & exhausted from the 29-hour Wiesbaden-to-Cairn Brae bus ride. She had never even heard of YL until 3 weeks earlier, when she stumbled upon a meeting in a school classroom where a YL leader was giving details on the trip. ‘Scotland? Wow, I wish I could go to Scotland,’ she said. Life-changing words. The first night at Cairn Brae I framed the question: ‘God, are you real? ’ Ava sat by herself on the back row (actually, BEHIND the back row) aggressively shaking her head ‘NO’ from side to side. By night 4, she had moved IN FRONT of the front row, soaking in every word spoken of the love of God. And then, at the Say So, Ava stood to face the crowd: ‘Hi, I’m Ava. I don’t really have any friends. Yesterday I was having a hard day, feeling very alone & sorry for myself, so I went back to my cabin. I began talking out loud & it suddenly hit me- I was talking to God! I met someone this week who loves me. I am not alone, & I will never be alone.’ This girl stole my heart. Please pray for Ava in her new walk.
Landon was the boy with the Rubik’s Cube- always looking down at his cube, constantly working it, never talking. It was his way of coping with extremely high anxiety around people, noise and crowds. For five days I never saw him without his cube, never saw him engage with or talk to anyone. Each night, when we gathered for our evening meeting, Landon sat in the back left corner- all alone aside from the companionship of his cube. Somehow Landon and I ended up walking together down the Highlands hike on day five. I asked him about the cube and was stunned when he answered. First Landon talked about his cube. Then about his iPhone. Then about his family. Then about his life and his future. Who even knew Landon could talk?! That day I discovered there was so much going on inside the heart & mind of this brilliant young boy struggling with very high anxiety. When Landon stood at the Say So and said, ‘This week I learned God loves me just as I am. I am trusting Jesus as my Savior and friend, ’ you could hear a pin drop. We were all…speechless.
Finally, Roni. If we were doing superlatives, she would’ve been voted ‘most popular’- always smiling, super-friendly, outgoing and talkative. But when her leader found her weeping one night, Roni confessed, ‘Everyone in our cabin seems so honest, but I’ve been hiding behind a fake smile all my life. Sometimes I just want to die.’ At the Say So, Roni wept- and sparkled through her tears: ‘I thought I was a Christian. But I have come to know Jesus this week like never before.’
These are just a few snapshots of God’s deep, amazing work during our time in Scotland. Once all the campers and staff had left, Cathy and I sat in our little living room overlooking the lake, drinking coffee, having our devotions, and reminiscing about all God’s Spirit had been up to. As we basked in the remarkable goodness of God, my thoughts were simple, yet overwhelming: ‘I can’t remember ever being more satisfied and grateful after a few weeks at a Young Life summer camp. I would freeze this moment if I could.’