This week’s episode is a companion piece to last week’s wonderful post by Matt Chambers, Program Director for Camp Lone Star. See his contribution here.
Now we have to figure out the other 51 weeks. What happens to campers when they have to ram the square peg of spiritual ferocity into the round hole of routine? It makes you wonder how did Peter, James, and John adjusted to the drudgery of ‘normal’ after the inexplicable events of the transfiguration…
Even though I was a geeky church-going kid, I didn’t really get into summer camps. My lone experience was limited to one week during my 7th grade year at Lost Creek Ranch, a generous sprawl of land and cabins stuck in the middle of a million California ponderosas. I had a marvelous time. I learned how to play ultimate Frisbee, willingly memorized seven verses of Scripture (!), and drank down a chocolate chip milkshake that may or may not have caused me to barf all over the cabin floor. I also remember being moved to tears by a devotion on one particular evening—though the details remain a bit fuzzy.
The camp may not have created a spiritual titan, but I remember it fondly nonetheless.
Fast forward to my youth minister days, where I had the privilege to lead 6-8 retreats a year. I loved pouring creative thought into the construction of these mini-camp experiences precisely because I knew that my kids would be a captive audience; they were predisposed to hear what God might reveal. Most times, the resulting experience was an intense week of devos, hikes, affirmations, games (human mafia) and/or challenge courses—and I came home dog-tired, collapsing into my couch on Sunday evening and not moving until Tuesday afternoon.
I don’t remember much of my day-to-day life as a youth minister. But I remember the retreats.
We remember the special events because our brains are wired to process patterns. If your brain sees something it’s used to seeing, it simply discards the event as unimportant (or at least, non-threatening). But when our brains are confronted by something new, off-putting, refreshing, unexpected, or outright fun—it lights up like a Christmas tree. We’re built to remember the deep and profound moments of inspiration that come from the interruptions of our precious routine.
“It’s in the moments of stability, not inspiration, that allow us to understand the movement of God.”
But the routine is still precious. And here’s why. The routine is the necessary dirt for the inspiration to take root. Euphoria is only euphoria because it is brief. The everyday life of the Christian, then, is the time between the watershed moments that allow a soul to rest and to reflect. It’s in the moments of stability, not inspiration, that allow us to understand the movement of God. The disciples on the road to Emmaus only understood their encounter with Christ after he left them. ‘Were not our hearts burning within us?’ They were processing the magnitude of the experience away from the presence of Jesus, culminating in a bold affirmation a scene later: ‘It is true! The Lord has risen!’
Too many times, I have heard a refrain from returning youth, ‘why can’t [church/youth group/life] be more like camp?’ Maybe the question should be: ‘How do we take what we get at camp and plant it into the ongoing life of the youth at home…at church…at school?’
Camp is often the seed that sprouts tremendous spiritual growth; but without regular watering, it’s just food for finches.
The Church, the family, and the neighborhood wait patiently for the camp’s closing barbecues and final sing-a-longs; their day-to-day work is about to begin. But, truth be told, they often don’t get it; they don’t realize what just happened. After all, how could Peter possibly explain to his wife what actually took place on the Mount of Transfiguration? No matter what Jerry Maguire tells us, the rare moments of inspiration leave us without words, without the grammars to explain the tectonic shifts going on below the surface. But this is precisely the space for the church, the family, and the neighborhood to situate itself … as makers of reflective routine. Routine generates the ability to understand, to talk, to make deeper connections, to make ready for the next lightning bolt. Zap-BOOM!
When the camper returns, pastors and youth ministers bear a difficult challenge, the daunting task to keep the high of camp burning as long as possible.
Post-camp life doesn’t have to be flashy, folks—it does, however, have to be stable. Camp and church are both manifestations of what it means to be in church-community together; we’re placed in a group of believers with a shared sense of culture and responsibility. In some ways, this should remind us of how the Church offers the means of grace. For the safety and health of the recipient, the Church always baptizes a convert in the midst of a body of believers where they are to be held in prayer and in accountability. Likewise, the Church offers communion as an experience of the many; the body of believers breaks bread in remembrance of the narrative which grounds the ‘I’ back into the ‘we.’ Only in emergencies do we baptize away from a congregation. Only in more extreme circumstances do we commune away from the church-community.
Camp without a responsible, committed body of believers back home should be just as rare.
Therefore, let these thoughts be a gentle reminder to all of us:
The life-changing aspects of camp are best served by the life-sustaining efforts of the local church. Our pastors and DCEs and unpaid youth guys often have sparse resources, yet they will be the ones who for the lion’s share of the year share in the joys and the tears of growing up. Weekly communion, regular confession/absolution, daily prayer … seeking these things draw us into the rhythms of God’s daily movement.
Churches that take the time to know their local camps can multiply their influence. I was fortunate to have a camp ministry that I trusted to its foundation. Not perfect, but trusted. I could give away (as if they were mine) my youth to Camp Lone Star with joy and gratitude because the Word they received was the same Word I had to offer. The Christ of camp was the Christ of my home congregation, without it being ‘our’ Christ at all. But I get the sense that this relationship is rare. After all, how many of our pastors have living, breathing relationships with the camp directors in their regions? And where relationships never existed, what remains is often skepticism. This cannot be the way of the future church.
The best camps know how to send their youth back to normal life. The best churches know how to bless the youth going out and how to assimilate them into the worship life on their return. For the sake of the kingdom, let’s allow both camp and church to do what they do best without undercutting the work of their respective partners. Doing life together with a rag-tag band of Christ-followers creates the necessary sense of community, where the ‘I’ of the Christian life is replace by ‘us.’ Community teaches us how to bear with one another, in our creaturely limitations, as God teaches us the way of empathy. It is a life of sharing, of partaking,…of koinonia. Not just at the level of the individual, but a koinonia of our institutions … of our ministries.
. . .
I can’t wait to send my children off to camp. Hopefully, the gang at Camp Lone Star will continue to do what it does best…love Jesus, teach Jesus, be Jesus. But this won’t absolve my responsibility at home, where I am (with my wife) the chief distributor of law and gospel. We are the story-tellers, the world-shapers, who bring the narrative of Scripture directly and consistently to my children’s doorstep, day after painful day. Camp won’t absolve my pastor, either, as if one week in the mountains of Lake Arrowhead will be enough to fill my sons and daughter for 51 other weeks. They must continue to preach the Word with creative faithfulness and administer the Sacraments with appropriate humility and awe—so that my children might recognize that worship is not Entertainment Weekly, but rather, where the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob dwells in their midst.
A final thought. Mo Ranch in Texas Hill Country in January. I took a group of high schoolers there and for some unknown reason, I actually suggested we go polar-bearing in the river at 5am. I was cursing silently to myself when it was time to pay the butcher’s bill, walking in 30 degree weather toward the rope swing, 6 high school boys in tow. In fact, one of them, young Matt Heckmann, shed his clothes like it was balmy South Beach …jumped up on the rope swing and flung himself into the river before the rest of us could even react. It. Just. Got. Real. There’s no way out. One by one, we plunged into the ice water and frantically swam back to shore—and our warm towels. It was horrible. And wonderful. We were walking smiles all day long.
Let’s remember that we need both the shock-and-awe of the water and the warmth of the towel to create a truly remarkable, truly human, experience. May our camps continue to charge our lives with the experience of the Almighty. But let us never fail to encourage our churches and families to ground its flock with consistent, faithful expressions of everyday living.
© 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.