The Strange Magic of Summer Camp

Fishing for Leviathan has a guest blogger this week! I am pleased to introduce Matt Chambers and his creative take on camp life and embodiment. Catch his bio at the end of the post! -jco

camp4In 1980, we rode the “Magic Bus,” an old and slightly reliable (thus the “magic”) school bus that had been hand-painted with typical 1970’s flamboyance, that served as the transportation for large youth group functions for the church.  My mom’s good Samsonite suitcase with my necessaries and, as I would discover, my heat-trapping-airplane-decorated sleeping bag were piled in the back of the bus with the other luggage as we kids, dressed in our short shorts, odd color combinations, and what are now considered throwback classic t-shirts, sat in seats talking (screaming?) and anticipating what was waiting for us so many hours away in the middle of Texas.  I had no idea.  As a matter of fact, I am not sure I even recall the discussion or decision to send me to camp.  Perhaps it had not involved me at all…maybe my parents just needed a break.

Summer camp has been a part of our nation’s culture dating back to the late 19th century when the first camping experience was created in 1877.  Each camp has its own unique approach to encountering the outdoors and purposes beyond that for the teaching of life lessons or faith development.  Every year, thousands of kids pack suitcases, duffle bags, and trunks in anticipation of either their first nervous step into a new adventure or a return to familiar lands where adventures of the past beckon them back to explore again and seek to fulfill the deep longing for something formulated and growing since the previous summer and found nowhere else but camp.

My first cabin was actually an old red bunkhouse built shortly after World War II, outfitted with giant fans and windows held open crudely by the “lean-to-technology” of sticks and scrap wood.  Upon entering, the showers were to the left and cramped (scary), the toilets were to the right and functional, and there were bunk-beds.  Bunk-beds.  Was I dreaming?  A top bunk in the corner was soon mine and my adventure had begun.  I mean, how can one go wrong sleeping 6 feet off the ground?!

So, what is it? What siren’s call beckons so powerfully from the gates of camps around the nation to bring children back again and again thus leaving behind the digitally dominated world offering enough entertainment so as to leave no moment unfulfilled/stimulated by game, show, or some sense of electronic connection all the time complimented by air-conditioned homes possessing all other creature comforts within easy reach?  Bunk-beds cannot be the answer.  There must be more.  Perhaps camp possesses a substance or depth not found “plugged in and comfortable” as the participant is challenged to experience life fully and not simply digitally.  Though isn’t that how we were created to experience life…in a garden? Physically?

My first public shower (intimidating) and a night of top bunk sleeping were just the beginning of my camp adventure.  The first morning, and every morning that followed, we were awakened to some unlucky person ringing a bell from a building positioned in the middle of all the cabins.  I loved it.  After breakfast, we headed to the stables.  It was here, scared out of my mind, I brushed and cleaned the hooves of what I could only assume was the Goliath of all horses.  Later, at archery we learned how to use a bow and arrow (weapons!) and my counselor showed us how high and far an arrow could go as he shot one over the tree line and into the woods to our great delight.  I swam in the pool, purchased candy of my choosing and drank BOTTLED cokes at the Trading Post. The mudslide and a rope swing served as ways to get into the Colorado River.  Later that week, we camped out, roasted marshmallows over a fire with sticks, and played lightsaber wars in the smoke of the fire with our flashlights.

So, why camp?  Does our creatureliness fit into this narrative?  Do we not experience the world through this body, and is it not the receptor of our soul and mind’s journey?  If so, does not the body matter at all or just what I think I experience?


Camp, in its purest form, removes us, unplugs us and brings us back to basics…the starting point…a garden.  The whole of creation serves as a reflection of His glory and the blessing of our place in it.  Mountains reflect His beauty, tree frogs His creativity, and the stars His vastness…The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands.  Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge (Ps 19).  Creation even serves as missionary to the world…Ever since the creation of the world His eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things He has made (Rom 1:20).  The creation itself then is purposed to remind people of or lead people to the Living God.

There is however an inherent danger in certain inceptions of camp as people can worship created things and not the Creator.  Unfortunately, science is often in a seemingly constant effort to prove the lack of God’s existence as opposed to being a celebration of His goodness in creation’s reflection.  Another present challenge is that in our great desire to advance technology and consistent pursuit of comfort, we have often created a barrier between us and the vehicle of creation.  The consistent barrage of first-world life is so full of distraction, we only know in our dissatisfaction that we are disconnected, but are often incapable of identifying what we actually need…thus, often bury ourselves deeper in a world of detachment seeking attachment.  We read and read and absorb information (even now reading this blog) and yet, when do we rest/get perspective…simply stop and truly observe?  When are we quiet?  How can we hear God with so many other little gods screaming at us?  Put down the phone recently?

Camp, in its purest form, removes us, unplugs us and brings us back to basics … the starting point … a garden.”

That summer I ruined my mother’s Samsonite suitcase.  I recall it sitting in the backyard “airing out” in the hot Texas sun.  It seems that I had returned home with a zip-lock bag full of sand and ants.  I had my reasons.  I had become fascinated with Ant-Lions, captured several, and had determined that they would need ants for the long ridcamp5e home.  I only learned later that these steps were not necessary.  I also learned later that my wet items should go in the zip-lock bags.   The following summers my mom sent me with an army-style duffle bag…full of zip-locks.

Tears have flooded my eyes while I write this for I am alive with memories from that first week of camp.  These vivid moments rest just on the edge of my mind as a constant reminder of not only the fun activities, but also that God met me there on the trails, in prayer, and in the songs sung around a camp fire.

I have never missed a summer at camp since…36 and counting…including the one in which we could not afford to pay, for my father was sick with cancer.  Some kind anonymous person, who I would love to thank today, paid for me to go.  If they only knew the extent of that generous act.  If they did, they would know that my life was changed and still is being changed because of camp. I met my wife there and some of my best friends. God has used His marvelous creation to challenge my arrogance and stubbornness, teach me how to teach, and showed me undeniable and palpable grace.  There simply is no place on God’s earth I have experienced Him more than at camp.  Perhaps that is why, year after year, I and so many others find ourselves filled with anticipation and excitement as we pack our bags, load our cars and go back to camp.



A committed LSU graduate/fan, Matt serves God through teaching and leadership at two different institutions. He teaches at Redeemer Lutheran Church and School in Austin, TX, during the school year. When summer hits, he’s molding minds at Camp Lone Star in La Grange. He is an outstanding educator, semi-retired opera singer, marginal soccer player, slightly-better-than-average husband, and kindred spirit. He lives with his beautiful and talented wife, Megan, in Austin (most of the time). Geaux Tigers!  -jco


© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


1 Comment

  1. Wow, somehow I came across this as I was trying to google up some information on Camp Lone Star for my little up-and-coming campers to be. Thanks for the great read, Matt. I hope to see you when I drop my oldest off in La Grange next summer.

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