I was asked recently to speak in a local Tennessee church about my experience of Lakeshore Camp & Retreat Center and thought I would publish (an edited version of) the talk here on the blog for it to be read:
Several years ago, as a high school senior, I would not have given a glowing endorsement of “church camp.” In fact, I stopped attending camp at the tender age of 11 because someone – presumably one of twelve boys in my cabin – stole my wallet. I mean, really, who steals an awesome neon-checkered wallet at church camp?! I’m still mad about it; after all, there is nothing that gets me (and most of us) more fired up than hypocrisy in the church. But if hypocrisy were a good enough reason for giving up altogether, the Christian movement probably should’ve ended before Jesus was even crucified. We stick with it because, despite the hypocrisy that’s inevitable to our brokenness, our hope in the presence of God eclipses all of that. Sometimes, it’s not even despite the hypocrisy but through it that love prevails. The question is whether we’re willing to work through it: be it our own hypocrisy or the hypocrisy of those we claim to love.
So, despite my inability to give a glowing recommendation for church camp as a high school senior, I nevertheless chose to start working at Lakeshore as a college freshman and continued there for four summers (despite wrecking the camp truck on the first day). And what I saw in those four summers was life-changing – for me as a young adult and for the thousands of campers who came through Lakeshore: I saw kids who came with no friends forge a family by the campfire and discover their strength of character in the woods. I saw youth from at-risk backgrounds hear the words “I love you” for the first time in a meaningful way. I heard their shock-and-awe when they woke up to the smells of home-cooked pancakes, the first home-cooked meal some of them had ever had. I saw leaps of faith from forty feet in the air on the camp ropes course and small, important steps of faith taken as youth explored and echoed an age-old story of redemption to find their place within it. I watched and joined as we canoed, hiked, creek-stomped, and hammocked through creation and were taught to care for what had been given to us. No cell phones. No glued to TV-screens or computers. And yet more connected to what mattered than we’d ever been.
And, of course, there’s plenty of stories of life-changing moments where someone knelt and prayed in the tabernacle or on the dock, where hearts were strangely warmed, but to be perfectly honest with you, while that’s important, soul-wrenching stuff, I think the power of camp has as much to do with the everyday stuff, as well. It’s kind of like this: if you achieved the incredible feat of completing (and understanding) a work by James Joyce or, say, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, you don’t pat yourself on the back for learning your ABCs in Kindergarten afterward. But by God if those ABCs weren’t really important, and camp is kind of like that for youth (or even adults retreating there): it’s the ABCs of Christian formation, of life formation, of learning how to “stick with it” in the face of hypocrisy, whether your own or somebody else’s. Of learning how to hope beyond despair and love beyond fear. I don’t know many places that care for all ages and love all people the way camp does.
So, all that said, I guess it’s interesting to me that while we have youth directors and pastors in churches, there’s no “coach” that is going to demand of your kid, “Sorry, you can’t be on this team if you don’t attend camp.” And that’s not to knock the importance of, say, cheerleading or basketball camp where that often does happen, because they are certain to build teamwork and character and healthy lifestyles. But a Christian camping and retreat center like Lakeshore does those things, too. And even more, it focuses on the one thing that we – no matter what age we are – have this strange tendency to neglect the most: our spirit. We live in a world where we are not always expected to take good care of ourselves, where we seldom have empathy or love for other people or are held accountable by them – especially those vastly different from us, and we certainly aren’t taught to draw near, to retreat, to listen for the voice of “something greater” moving in our lives. But that’s three things camp does do. And it does them really well. And while I don’t seriously think we need a church coach enforcing the expectation of attending church camp, as it would defeat the purpose of us making our own free choices, I do think it’s worth being reminded of where our priorities really are, of how centered we aim to be.
More than that, we live in a world where too many “Christians” have turned Christianity into a dirty word, where even church camp probably too often has a bad rap for being a little too much Bible-thumper, a little too much “Jesus-camp” and a little less like the love it claims to uphold. In a world where there are Christians too-often preaching bigotry, we need Christians who stand for something better to educate youth to think critically about their faith and to engage it in a loving context. If the “church” is to survive into the next century, it so desperately needs a generation of Christians raised on the kind of values that are loving to all people, to all of creation – as well as a generation of Christians who can hang on – still loving – in the face of those who don’t. I’ve seen Lakeshore Camp & Retreat Center raise those kinds of kids to be adults – something I’m proud to have been and keep being a part of. And I want to see that legacy continue.
So, if you’re a parent, I encourage you to send your kid to camp and let them see for themselves what this thing of grace is all about. If you have money, I encourage you to donate to the scholarship fund so campers of all walks of life can experience the same thing. If you’re in college or about to be, I encourage you to volunteer to work a summer or apply next year to be on staff. If you’re a young adult, I encourage you to spend a week or a weekend there, perhaps as a volunteer or maybe for an adult retreat. If you’re a pastor, I encourage you to take your church on a retreat to the camp. It is a place for all to “experience life, love, and the God of grace.” It needs you, church, and frankly, you really need it.