Tag Archives: camp

Reimagning Church Camp

Imagine this: there is a place where you can be completely yourself, and be loved for everything you are. In this place you can sing, dance, laugh, pray, play, run, create, explore and live more fully than you do in your every day life — possible live the most full life you can. This is a place where you can ask questions you may be afraid to ask in your every day life and those questions will be explored, not ignored or put down. This is a place where you feel God as a real, living presence and become more aware of the value and example of the life of Jesus and of the movement of the Holy Spirit in your life. When you leave this place, the relationships you have formed will support you throughout your life. When you experience crushing loss, these friends will be there to carry you. When you experience immense joy, these friends will show up to celebrate with you. This place will feed your faith in God, in others, and in yourself.

This is how I experienced church camp. Sure, there was teenage drama — the boy I liked who didn’t like me back (oh, Cory… sigh…). But I don’t remember there being cool kids or losers like there so often are in teenage life. I do remember learning to love people I never would have talked to in my daily life and being loved in a way I never thought possible. It is the experience of Camp Mowana that grew my faith as I spent most of my teenage years at punk shows with Atheist friends. It is the love I felt at camp that lives in my heart and reminds me of God’s love when I feel unloveable and worthless. It is the friendships that I made at camp that kept me faithful during the lean years, the times when it seemed like everything was dark and God was nowhere to be found. I have said many times that my camp experiences and relationships have possibly saved my life — and definitely saved me from myself more than once. I am not the only person who can tell this story about church camp (I recognize that there are some awful church camp stories out there, that’s not what I’m goin’ for here).

There is a whole lot of happiness in this picture. You have no idea. Unless you are in it, then you do.

And yet traditional, cabin in the woods church camps seem to be dying. This makes me so sad — not just because I am so attached to my beloved Camp Mowana, but because losing camps will mean losing an amazing way to foster and feed the faith of young people. We are losing the very people we need to reach the most. The problem is, we are trying to reach them by going to places they aren’t. If our churches are shrinking and youth involvement is particularly struggling, how does it make sense to depend on local congregations to  fill the cabins? Why are camps fishing in ponds that are, by and large, dying?

The big question here is this: How can camp be missional?

What if, instead of focusing on the people in the pews, we focused on the people in the surrounding towns? What if we made camps a place where people could explore faith, not just a place where it was fed to them? Would it be possible to be open to the “spiritual but not religious” and yet retain Christian (Lutheran, in my case) integrity? Can a camp be Christian “under the hood”?

What if our camps were also vibrant spiritual communities where regular worship happened once a week? What if we invited the community in for weekend meals? Or, even crazier, what if we invited local bands in to perform, hosted yoga retreats, provided levels of Christian experience for people who weren’t too sure about church? What if we had weeks that taught farming or primitive skills or computer skills with a side of Jesus? Is any of this possible?

I’m scheming and dreaming new ways we can do church camp. Help me out. What is being tried? What is working? What isn’t? If any of my non-Christian friends read this – could anything draw you/your children/your family to a camp that was identified as Christian? What can we do to revive or rebirth outdoor ministries?

Water from an unlikely source: a sermon on the woman at the well

The Samaritan Woman at the Well — He Qi

(A sermon on John 4) It is January 1998. I am at camp for the annual camp staff holiday gathering. I have come here early because I need to pray. I need answers, I need comfort, I need direction. You see, 1997 was a really, really bad year.

To begin with, my college is not the right fit for me, and I did not transition well to being the small actress fish in a large theatre pond. I am on the wrong path and it’s eating me up inside. My life (as I knew it) got exponentially worse this past March. I came home for spring break and learned that my grandfather was going to die that week. I spent the rest of the semester in a fog of partying and self-pity. I’m a little too good at self-pity.

That summer was supposed to make it all better – I was heading back to camp. I have been going to this camp since I was 10 years old. Camp nurtures my faith and fed my soul. The people there are family. I thought I was going to go to camp and sing songs and do candlelight worship and be around my friends and everything was going to get better.

We arrived to a new director, which was really exciting because our previous director had been… misunderstood (and we thought kind of mean). In our first all-staff meeting there were at least twice as many staffers, which seemed really weird. We gathered for our first session and were told that the day camp and residential camps were combining. We were all going to spend half of the summer doing day camp around Ohio, living in strangers homes, away from Camp. This is not what I signed up for. This is not why I came to this place year after year. As training wore on, we learned how different things would be. What was supposed to be my safe place became my nightmare. My already fragile health was falling apart due to the constant moving and eating at the mercy of host families and kind church ladies. One day, I was crying as I walked down a path at camp. I was sick, I was tired, I was upset. I looked up and saw the director. I tried to talk to her to see if maybe something could be changed. She looked me in the eyes and asked, “Did you follow your chain of command?” I wanted to ask, “What is this, the army?” Instead, I dissolved into a puddle of tears. The director walked away, leaving me to shake and cry. I was not the only one struggling. That summer was so bad many of my friends would never work there again.

I went back to school that fall in worse shape than I had been when I left. I kept partying, I slept through exams, I gave a presentation on Ionesco’s Rhinoceros still drunk from the night before. I stranded friends on a lighting practical that I slept through. The only reason I wasn’t failing was a combination of the grace of God and my professors.

Something needs to change. I am on a road to destruction. I want to drop out of school, find the right place to be, but I’m terrified of what my parents would say and of making the wrong decision.

So, here I am at camp, ready to pray and get answers. First stop: the chapel in the woods. I drive up to Intermediate Hill and hop out of my car. It is so quiet. I love the silence of snow. My feet squeak as I walk across the chapel field. The chapel is so beautiful in its winter stillness. The altar and chapel benches are covered in snow.  I brush a bench off and sit. I stay for a while, talking to God, waiting for a response. Nothing. It’s really cold out — I’m running out of body heat and patience. This isn’t working, but I need answers. I need God. Maybe I need to really get down and touch the earth.

I head to the chapel field, get down on my hands and knees and beg God for an answer, a solution, a sign. “Dear God, if I should drop out of school, send me a sign. Make a bunny run across the field, then I’ll know what to do.” No bunny. No nothing. Just silence. I’m shivering now, and it’s almost time for dinner. So… thanks, God? Is your silence an answer?

I meander down to the dining hall. There aren’t a ton of people here, largely due to the events of the summer, but it is so good to see the people who are here. To get hugs. To be loved. We eat together, we hang out for a bit, then we head to the lodge for worship. I love taking communion with these people, with my family. I’m trying to ignore the fact that the director is here. But now that it is time to worship, I can’t avoid her. She will be preaching and presiding. I’m sick at the fact that I have to be in the same room with her, much less the fact that I have to listen to her speak for 15 minutes. Her continued presence in this sacred space fills me with rage. I try to practice forgiveness, but it’s too hard. I breathe.

We sing, and it is wonderful. We pray and I am at home. We start the readings and I become aware of her again. Aware of the woman who ruined my camp for me and so many people I love. Her sermon begins.

“You know how, when you drive down the highway, there are all these signs that say “NO U TURN?” That can be so frustrating. Sometimes you get on at the wrong place or are accidentally funneled onto the highway and, without a u-turn, you could go miles and miles in the wrong direction.”

I so know what she is talking about. What the what?

“I have done this so many times on the highway, and in life. Fortunately, in life, there are U-Turns. God lets you take them whenever you want. In fact, if you’re going the wrong way, God tells you tu turn around now. Right now.”

Tears are streaming down my face. I feel my friend Don’s hand on my back, my friend Jenny sneaks her arm around me. These words feel like they are just for me, straight from God. Straight to my heart from a woman I despise. A woman who ruined something I hold so dear. The answer to my prayer came through her – unexpected, unwanted, frankly — these words came from a place I never would have suspected. I was so, so thirsty for the water of life – and there it was.  Here is my foe, offering me exactly what I need. I never saw it coming. I had looked in fields and at crosses, in churches and in the form of fuzzy bunny rabbits. Never in the form of a woman I considered my enemy.

So it is with the woman who went to the well to draw water. She had had a hard life, at least as far as love goes. In my experience, people who are looking for love in all the wrong places are usually looking for the kind of love that won’t be found in another human. They are looking for a love that is wholly different; they are looking to never thirst again — they are looking for the water of life This Samaritan woman went to the well to draw water, as she did every day. She wasn’t expecting to have a conversation with a Jew, and she certainly wasn’t expecting that Jew to know her past or to offer her living water. But that’s how it happened.

The people hearing this story about Jesus had expectations. When a man and a woman meet at a well, the story ends in marriage. But Jesus goes and turns this story upside down. That is how it always seems to happen with Jesus. In this way, Jesus is a parable. Jesus meets us in strange and unexpected ways; he makes us tilt our head and try for a new vantage point, he confuses us, he disturbs us, he makes us think about things differently. Jesus meets us where we never expect, in people we would rather not pay attention to. Jesus rarely shows us the answers exactly how we want him to, when we want him to, saying the things we want to hear. Sure, Jesus is here to comfort us and walk with us and love us, but there’s more to it than that – that wouldn’t be a parable.

And here’s the thing: we, too, are called to be parables. As much as we are called to comfort, we are called to disturb. As much as we are called to show up where it is expected, we are called to be in places that are entirely unexpected. We are called to reach across boundaries of race and class and gender and orientation and nationality and any other boundaries people insist on creating. We are called to make people shift their view of reality and, in doing so, to point people towards God. This is our call: to live parabolically, as Jesus lived. Go forth and live the parable.

Am I broken?

There aren’t enough stars in the sky, oxygen molecules on earth, or freckles on my shoulders to come close to describing my love for God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I crave connection with the holy. It feeds me. It is my faith in God’s love, my knowledge of Christ’s presence in my life, and my awareness of the Holy Spirit that has gotten me through so many deaths in my life at a young age, that got me though the illness and death of my father, that kept me going when I could barely get out of bed and keeps me going today. God’s transformative work in my heart, Christ’s example and the pull of the Holy Spirit compel me to be concerned about social justice, to work towards a world in which all of God’s children are nourished in body, heart and mind — a world without bullying (on an individual or global scale), a world where love and concern for brother and sister are the law of the day. Everything about me is formed, informed and fed by my Christian faith.

I don’t even need all of the fingers on one had to count the times I have felt this way in a church worship service.  This leads me to wonder what is wrong with me. Why is it that someone who loves God so much can’t stand church? WTF? Am I broken (this is not a theological question about the nature of sin)? I go to church hoping to hear a word that convicts or uplifts me, to feel the Holy Spirit in song, to be filled with Christ during eucharist. It happens so rarely that I have a clear memory of each time it has happened. I usually leave church annoyed with the service for not “working” for me (I know this isn’t useful, particularly when I start to nitpick), and with myself for not getting the connection.

In my former congregation, there was a woman who always just said that it wasn’t about us. It was about God. Our needs didn’t matter. We were there to worship God. But isn’t worship a two-way street? Isn’t it about us worshiping God and God’s grace breaking into our lives in word and sacrament (and community)? What does it mean when that doesn’t happen? Over and over and over again?

Where did I get this faith if church has rarely done much for me? Some of it I think I was just born with. I’ve always had a kind of weird desire to connect with God, and a strong awareness of God’s presence in my life. A lot of it comes from my experiences at camp. It was in those worship services that I felt God most clearly. One of my most transformative life moments was when God’s word broke through to my heart in the words of someone I, at the time, kind of hated. That is where I experienced what real Christian community could look like. There I was, an awkward 12-year-old with a ton of friends who let me be me. Later on, it was my friends from camp that prayed for and with me when life seemed to be falling apart.  I saw Christ every day for five summers. He was just there, in the midst of us. He was us. And now, I search and search and am often left wanting.

And I’m studying to be a pastor. A lot of what drives me is that I know there are a lot of people like me out there who, as Dan Kimball says, love Jesus but not the church. For me it’s less about “the” church than church worship services. I am one of them — the people who don’t feel at home in church, who have never really fit in. People who don’t jive with traditional worship, people who want to live their faith outside of the church walls. But I keep feeling like this might not be possible within the confines of a denomination. The impression I get from those around me, those teaching me, is that this will not fit into the denomination I love. I get discouraged. A lot. Yet, God must have called me to this for a reason. So I keep going, keep walking this strange path through a dark wood. Because I want to love Jesus and church. I have experienced this few times, but I have experienced. I know it is possible. I just have to figure out how.

A song that says so much to me right now: God is in the House, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.