What does hope look like?
For me last week it looked like 70-some young people, from 8 years old through high school age, singing crazy camp songs, laughing, learning, and listening to camp stories, swimming and zip-lining and sitting in circles sharing questions – tough questions – during “Ask the Pastor” small group Bible Study time.
Hope looked like a dozen or so young adults serving as camp counselors, enthusiastic even when they were exhausted, patient with the diversity of their campers’ needs and quirks and fears, not just teaching but modeling what unconditional love looks like.
And all of it – whether it was silly or exciting, new or passed down through the generations, quiet or top-of-your-lungs loud – all of it based on the foundation of God’s love in Christ.
It was my privilege to spend last Sunday through Friday as “Pastor of the Week” at Mar Lu Ridge Lutheran Summer Camp.
I left for camp basted in the bad news that has been so pervasive lately, and certainly there was more it while I was there. But being with those young people – campers and counselors – experiencing God’s creation and God’s love and yes, God’s FUN – was a hope recharger. At the end of the week I was thanked and given a Camp Mar Lu Ridge baseball shirt in recognition of the chapels I spoke at and the Bible studies I helped with, but I was the real recipient of a gift – of grace.
The gift of hope.
I also had my conviction renewed in the importance of camps and other opportunities to get young people out of their element, to get them away from the comforts of modernity I certainly appreciate but which sometimes shield us from the glories of the natural world, and to get them away from media that threatens to fill our minds, hearts, and even spirits to overflowing with human-generated artifice so there is no room left for organic awe and wonder, and even for unmediated interaction.
My belief in the transformative power of transitory immersion in creation predates my belief in a Creator. When I was an atheist/agnostic in my twenties I worked for two years as a counselor at a secular Wilderness Camp for troubled youth. The young men who spent a year or more in our intensive program became part of a group that built the structures they lived in, took weeks’ long backpack and canoe trips, and chopped a lot of firewood to get through the winters in the North Carolina mountains. The camp – and others like it – had the lowest recidivism rate of any residential program in the state, an achievement attributable not just to the structure of the program but especially to the nature (pun intended) of the environment in which the program took place.
A few years later when I was working as a Juvenile Probation Officer, I was part of a multi-agency team that held “Family Nurturing Camp” weekends. We designed a program (I say “we” but I only was responsible for the adolescent small group piece) that combined parent education and camp activities. The camp served families with children at risk of out of home placement, and even a weekend in the woods served as at least a foundation for transformation for many of those families.
Now that I am a Christian and a pastor, to combine my faith in camp programs with my faith in Christ is something I can get excited about. But until I spent last week at summer camp, I had not realized – or perhaps had forgotten – how important and effective this combination can be.
Because of my adolescent falling away from faith, I had almost forgotten the two summers I spent a week each at Camp Hanover, a Presbyterian camp in Virginia. But last week the memories returned of those experiences in the summers following my fifth and sixth grade years.
- Torches! The second year my group had a counselor from England who told us the first day that later in the week we would be taking a “night-hike with torches!” The anticipation built as we pictured walking through the dark woods, our way illuminated only by the fiery sticks we held aloft. Imagine our disappointment when we found out “torch” was only British for “flashlight.” The night hike was still pretty cool, though.
- Crush! My first exquisitely painful crush focused on a blonde-haired little girl in my group who obviously had no interest in me. That was of course only because she didn’t know of my deep feelings for her. I decided only a grand gesture would do. On the last day of camp, when it was her turn to ride on the tire swing that arced out over a chasm that probably is not as deep as my memory of it, I would jump on the swing with her when it swung back to the ridge from which it was launched. Unfortunately, my fear of heights exceeded my fear of girls and my love remained undeclared.
- Protest! I did not like Crafts. I wanted more time on the Mudslide, a hill covered in mud (obviously) with bobsled-like ruts you slid down into a pond. That was definitely one of the best things about Camp, and for me Crafts was not, both due to my ineptitude with tools and the lameness of the craft options in those days. But my rebellion was short-lived and utterly failed.
- C. S. Lewis! Each afternoon during quiet time, a female counselor read a chapter to our group from a book in the Chronicles of Narnia series. I still remember the feeling of the pen strokes on the back of my hand as she wrote “Prince Caspian” on the day we had to leave so I could find and finish the book when I got home. I did. I would go on to read all the Narnia books and two decades later when I returned to faith the theological books of C. S. Lewis would be a tremendous influence. I first heard of him at summer camp, a seed of faith that would not germinate for years.
Who knows what other seeds of faith were planted in those two weeks at Camp Hanover? I remember bits and pieces of chapel services – a counselor talking about the hands God had given her and what she could do with them if she thought of them as God’s hands, a skit about racial prejudice (which would have been quite radical for mid-70’s Virginia), singing “Pass It On” at campfire worship, and so on.
Camp Hanover then – like Mar Lu Ridge now – was not an institution of indoctrination like you may have seen in the documentary film“Jesus Camp.” God was not – and is not – forced down campers’ throats but rather acknowledged and honored as the creator of the natural world in which the camp exists and as an abiding, unconditionally loving presence in the lives of campers and counselors. Participation and even questions are not only allowed but encouraged during Bible studies.
At Mar Lu Ridge, Bible studies happen two or three times a day within groups. They focus not on doctrinal purity but rather on campers’ experience of God during their time at camp as well as in their “normal” lives. There is something about the separateness of camp from those normal lives, something about unfettered engagement with creation, that facilitates a deeper connection with God. God just seems nearer and more real somehow in the majesty of the mountain views, in the refreshment of a summer breeze, in the crackling of a campfire and the chorus of campers singing around it.
The loving presence of God is also expressed in the compassionate care of counselors and other camp staff. The counselors in particular embodied empathy and grace as they wiped away tears, assuaged fears, built group cohesion, negotiated peace between temporary enemies, and responded to the myriad and ongoing needs of young people away from home, many for the first time.
I was impressed by these young adults, some a third of my age (18×3=54). I told someone that I felt both very young and very old during my week at camp. But where else can a young adult have so much responsibility, and have the opportunity to undertake it as admirably as the counselors I met at Mar Lu Ridge? Where else can those barely above camper age themselves build relationships with young people and be looked up to as role models, and also influence their spiritual life not just at camp but also by planting seeds of faith for the future?
Those counselors will undoubtedly be leaders in our churches and in our communities. I have read that a good percentage of pastors and other church leaders were campers and/or counselors in church camps. It is no wonder many were counselors; what an opportunity to put faith in action caring for others!
All of this serious stuff is not to negate perhaps THE essential of the camp experience. FUN! If it wasn’t fun then no one would show up for the other stuff. And it is fun. I did not hear a young person all week claim that they weren’t having a good time. Fun was evident in their smiles and in their laughter, in their singing and dancing and overall joy.
Songs and skits are at the heart of fun at camp, and there were no shortage of them at Mar Lu Ridge complete with motions and dancing and verses that get faster and louder. Some of them have been around for a long while; I remembered “The Rattlin’ Bog” and some others from Camp Hanover! The skits were of the same type as well, except there are more fart jokes than I remember . . . but I’m sure that’s okay at a Christian camp because after all Jesus was fully human and I can picture him and the disciples around the fire at night . . . well maybe not. Anyway . . .
Last week in addition to general camp fun, last week there were several specialized groups. There was a cooking group (who named themselves the Crazy Dabbing Cupcake Unicorn Chefs) easily identifiable by their tall white chef’s hats. I particularly liked this group as they shared their culinary creations at dinner each evening; the Teddy Bear Bread was excellent, and the S’mores Ice Cream Cake was the biggest frozen dessert I’ve seen off a cruise ship.
Another group participated in Science Camp, with experiments including “How many rubber bands can you wrap around a watermelon until it bursts?” and incasing themselves in huge bubbles. There was also an Adventure Camp Group that I didn’t see much of because they were off white water rafting or hiking or otherwise testing their mettle against the challenges of nature.
About halfway through the week, a counselor asked me what impressed me most about camp. I answered it was the fun. I think he was surprised so I explained that we in the church have made the mistake of divorcing fun from Christianity. Too often our religion is a dour affair especially for children with so many rules – don’t run in church, don’t talk in church, don’t dress too comfortable for church, take your hat off in church, sit up straight and pay attention in church – that it is a wonder any young person sticks with it once they have a choice.
Jesus undoubtedly knew how to have fun. He was fully human, not just the solemn parts. His first miracle was at a wedding party (turning water into wine). Jesus was the kind of person you invited to parties. People liked to be around him. I doubt if he was serious all the time.
What Mar Lu Ridge and similar camps do is demonstrate, through the opportunity to experience it, that following Jesus can be fun, at least sometimes. Christians do not have to conform to H. L. Mencken’s definition of puritanism (“The haunting belief that someone, somewhere may be having a good time.”).
At summer camp, young people internalize not rules but JOY as the center of our relationship with God. Rules are important – they keep us safe and help us get along with each other – but they are for us not us for them (as Jesus said about the Sabbath). Learning that is a great gift, one that is given by the camp program and by those who make it happen.
I had the privilege of being one of those people last week. Sort of. It was my first time as Pastor of the Week, and I hadn’t been to summer camp since those two weeks at Camp Hanover 40-some years ago (yeah, I am old – Nixon resigned during one of those weeks). I wasn’t always sure what I was doing. A lot of my time was unstructured and my introverted nature kicked in so I wasn’t as involved in as many activities as I might have been. I also took some time each afternoon to write (my book, Too Smart for God will be finished this summer!), which was an awesome opportunity but I’m sure I missed some stuff by doing that.
But what I did participate in and see was more than enough to convince me, or re-convince me, that camp programs are one of the best things churches and denominations do for their young people and for the future – and present – of those churches and denominations. I am blessed to be part of a Synod (equivalent to districts, presbyteries, etc. in other denominations) – the Delaware Maryland Synod of the ELCA – that prioritizes the Christian camp experience through its support of Mar Lu Ridge.
As I reflect on my week at Mar Lu Ridge, two specific encounters with campers, both on the last day, stand out.
One is the camper who told me at the closing cookout, “I had so much fun this week I actually forgot I was an atheist for a while.” My prayer for that young person is that they will remember – someday – how much God loves them. Like it did for me, that may take a while but it sounds like seeds for that epiphany may have indeed been planted during the week at camp.
The second thing that happened was at the closing worship service with campers, parents and staff present. Not having done Pastor of the Week before, I wondered all week if anyone was listening to my talks at chapels or the other pastorly things I did, especially in light of my inexperience in that environment.
At the closing chapel I had the opportunity to speak again. I addressed the parents, telling them campers had asked great questions during “Ask the Pastor” Bible Studies and encouraged them to encourage their young people to keep asking questions because that’s how they’d learn. Then I turned my attention to the campers, ending by quoting the assistant director of the camp I worked at in my 20’s who always said to young people who left that camp after a year, “Go home and make home a better place because you are there.”
When I was done, I again wondered if what I had said had been appropriate for the situation and thought maybe the campers had tuned me out by now.
Later, it was time for one of the campers, not much older than 10, to pray. His prayer? Basically, “God, help us keep learning about you and help us make home better.”
At least one person was listening! Maybe I planted a seed or two during my week at camp.
If I did, I’m sure it was the environment and not me, but it felt good, anyway.
It was part of that gift of hope I talked about at the beginning of the post. It is a gift not just for me, but for the campers and their families, and for the staff, and for everyone (and every church) who makes the camp happen through their time, talent, and financial resources.