Stories from Hershey, Pennsylvania, or Why the Church Needs Camp

On the way to Hershey, Pennsylvania, there was a light mist just gracing everything. It was probably remnants of Joaquin, the hurricane that teetered and tottered over whether or not it was really going to make landfall, but out here, in God’s country, hurricanes are not on anybody’s mind. There’s something simple to life here, and I mean that in every positive connotation the word “simple” can offer. Grass that grows the way it did when this was still a “frontier,” cows grazing like the mist was a good bath, barns and silos that are actually painted red like barns you see in paintings. The whole landscape is just that, an American painting, really. Which is, I should say, not what I was expecting out of Hershey, Pennsylvania. I think I was picturing something more industrial, like what I imagine Scranton to be. I had expected dull, white factories against a backdrop of rusted train tracks and trash blowing on the street. Instead, the factory here is a magical place where little girls turn into exploding blueberries, bubbles can make you fly, and everybody has a golden ticket. Okay, maybe it’s not that glamorous. But I won’t lie: there was a faint smell as I drove into town of smoking chocolate. Maybe I just imagined it, but I will always claim that’s what I smelled.

I got roped into (which I also use in the most positive way possible) a “transformational leadership conference” of United Methodist clergy and lay leaders from ten conferences across the Northeast Jurisdiction of the church. About 700 people in sum. There’s something about a group of church leaders coming together that makes it feel a bit like a synod or council with major decisions being made, but really, the general consensus of the gathering seemed to be this: the system is broken, the church is dying, what do we do?

Why is it dying? Why is Methodism dying? Everybody had a different, good reason! To name a few I heard while there: churches want to be nurtured rather than reach out and do good work in the world; the lack of prophetic voices (i.e. voices speaking out about injustices) renders the church irrelevant; dysfunctional conferences that make [financial] decisions that benefit the few rather than the many; an unwillingness or inability on the part of leadership (or the congregation) to be vulnerable and honest within their respective ministries; too many selfish decisions that lacked empathy or the reminder that the church is communal. I’m not sure people left the conference empowered or not? They certainly left with more clarity about how much is broken. And every once in a while, someone offered a tidbit, a “morsel” might be a better word given our location, of advice, but there was deep grieving shadowing over it.

In some ways, I felt like I didn’t fit in. I am not United Methodist, though I work for the church as a camping professional. I do not serve a dying congregation. Or any congregation. And the people I do serve are a relatively transient population (though I would argue that the impact we have on their lives is anything but transient!). In a weekend of lamentations, what I heard out of these conversations left me thinking that what everybody yearns for is that their church would be more like camp. And is that any surprise, really? All weekend, as I met people and mentioned off-hand that I worked at a camp, the response was almost always: “That’s how I got into ministry – when I was working as a camp counselor, etc.” Ah, yes, the good old days. So what went wrong?

Church Camp offers a sacred space where kids and staff, alike, are invited to be vulnerable, to be themselves, because the very basics are that God loves you for who you are. The Church encourages secrecy and shame in an environment of judgment and distrust. Church camp brings strangers to the same space and in only one short week forges them together as a trusting family. The Church brings strangers together each week and keeps them, for the most part, as strangers in what is a very Americanized, individualistic experience. Church camp calls kids and staff to be better, even in their disagreement and discord, than they might be anywhere else: to live honestly and speak truth to power if necessary – but in a way that seeks unity within the community. The Church fails to be a prophetic voice in the world, and when the church is living righteously (or thinks it is), it does so in a way that creates deep division built mostly on a false sense of moral superiority.

Of course, speaking of moral superiority, I’m not being entirely fair: church camp is the church, which should not be forgotten (and too often is by people like me). And for my very general statements that “church camp is x” or “the church is y,” I’m sure there are plenty of failing camps out there and plenty of successful churches, too. But when the United Methodist system, generally-speaking, has high hopes that our camps will produce future Methodists, it shouldn’t feel so much like “church” and “church camp” are two separate entities. And it seems backwards to me to expect our camps, many of which offer thriving experiences for unchurched youth, to prepare kids for the very mundane, awful world of a Sunday morning, dry church experience when they and we know that something better is out there. Why should they waste their time on a place where they will not be connected – to people or to God? As I said in an email to a seminary president I met this weekend, “And so it is: millennials have this amazing experience at camp, then return to their dead churches filled with fake ostentation, and they make the right decision to leave.” Who can blame them?

In the course of Christian history, you’ll find mostly campers. Jacob camping at the Ford of Jabbok and wrestling with God. The Tent of Meeting housing the Ark at Shiloh (i.e. the first “temple” where God resided, indeed, was a kind of camp). Moses and God’s people wandering in the wilderness and given manna from heaven. While they camped. Jesus, the peripatetic Jew, camping during the transfiguration or resting and praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, a place apart from the city. And it wasn’t just the ancient world. Fast-forward to the dawn of Methodism and you guessed it: more camping. The Wesley brothers camped at St. Simon’s in Georgia. The circuit riders and early revivals of American Christianity: campsites. Maybe, just maybe, there’s something to this camping thing – this simpler way of life the way the endless stretch of grassy fields near Hershey, Pennsylvania feels simple and welcoming. Maybe, just maybe, what the church needs is not for camps to produce churchgoing Christians but for churches to produce camping Christians. Maybe, just maybe, if Christianity – or at least Methodism – is to survive beyond the next fifty or so years, things better start looking a whole lot more like camp than they do in their current state.

Driving back to New York, I left at the crack of dawn to avoid city traffic and hugged the Hudson River on the Jersey side just as the sunrise glimmered off the skyscrapers. It was like I’d figured out exactly when New York City sleeps, but it was also surreal seeing the empty street the closer I got to the George Washington Bridge. I thought about how busy this place would soon be, ghost-town though it was in this brief moment. The people from the NEJ conference would soon be returning to their cities, their charges and ministries, likely still filled with lamentations and worries and asking, “What am I going to do?” As for me, I headed back to camp, where I live and work. And I hope they’ll join me there.

The Transient Paths of All the Creatures of the Field

There’s a family of groundhogs that have been hanging around my house lately. They are joined, strangely enough, by the sudden return of deer who avoided the island like the plague when the summer crowds first arrived on Memorial Day. Some have been brave enough to get within a few feet or so. And driving down the road recently, I saw again a flock of turkeys. It’s as if a “no [insert animal here]” sign was removed much the way the stop signs on Shore Road will be removed soon after Labor Day.

There are, of course, the usuals who never left – the squirrels, the chipmunks, the ospreys, and the gulls – all around and about. But I’m intrigued most by the coming-and-going of the temporary little animals – both the furry, cuddly kind and us human beings, too. It’s almost jarring how quickly life can change, the mode of circumstances that drive us – quite literally – from one place to the next. That’s how quickly I found myself drawn from Morocco to cross the ocean to Tennessee to New York.

I remember when I was in high school and first studying early nomadic humans in Mr. Briley’s world history class and how strange it was to me that people picked up and left and didn’t know one place, really, as home. Our earliest ancestors did what the animals seem to do even now: follow the safest path that has the guarantee of food. But by the time I was reading the Odyssey a few years later, it seemed to me there was a drive greater than the search for safety or food alone that lead us away. Something tied together the unknown, some need to know it, and our need to be. Something nearly guaranteed this kind of transience for a life that’s already, fortunately or not, a fairly transient one. Was some evolutionary pattern instilled in us so that when we did choose to go, we were still just following the food sources subconsciously? That may be, but I think the search for bread and wine can be one deeply symbolic and beyond the physical elements. It’s no wonder that the eariest mythologies, the earliest gods and goddeses, were tied to the land, the river, the well-springs of life. But they were tied to them in a way that followed the well-spring to where it sprang most, and that was something that they found often shifted and changed as the waters moved.

The holiest places, then, were the places we human beings felt it was safe to stop, even if (or especially when) that was temporary. And we still do this. It’s why we camp, why we retreat, why we vacation, or even move. In a society so driven by consumerism, there’s more than money pushing us out of our complacency whether we listen to it or not. There’s a voice that whispers, “Go,” against all our fears of leaving our holy spots, our sanctuaries. There’s another voice that whispers, “Stay,” when we stumble upon our calling. It’s the very reason most great prophets, Jesus included, were peripatetics, sauntering such that their home was wherever their feet were at the given moment. How long are we allowed to stop? How long do we need to replenish ourseles? From where is the water fulfilling enough and can we distinguish it from the bitter waters we choose too often to drink instead? How long before the holy home of rest is grown to something mundane and no longer the haven to us it once was? Will we carry the courage to acknowledge when we must go or when we must stay? Will we connect ourselves to our inner self, to the “Ground of Being,” to others so that we can hear the voices with honesty when they nudge at us? Whether evolutionary patterns or not, we are called to be like the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky or even the little groundhogs scuttering away to the shadows underneath the cottage. But they seem to know better than us how long to be. I envy them and the early nomads for the ease with which the evolutionary patterns seem to be guiding to their most basic decisions. But I’m thankful too for the rest, for the pause, for the return of the little creatures and the role I play welcoming them here to my home, however temporary or long-loved they or I will be.

Broken Shells in all their Goodness, or the Adventure of the Mystery Black-Orange Pottery Pieces

On the southwestern tip of Shelter Island, there’s a hidden public beach called Shell Beach. I say it’s hidden because you could easily drive right by the unmarked turn-off for it in a residential area and never know it was there. But the beach itself is nearly a mile-long peninsula just barely wide enough for a one-lane, gravel road. And all along the beach are thousands upon thousands of shells. On one side of the beach, in fact, the shells have beat up against the bulkhead and are about a foot thick. The tide has just kind of dumped them there in a treasure trove of conch shells, clams, and cockles, among others.

I went there this afternoon with our summer staffers Charlotte and Wendy and Wendy’s kids Jamin and Cora, and we just kind of walked around in awe at the beauty of this little, underpopulated hidden beach. While Wendy and Cora swam, Jamin and I – decked out in shoes and socks and not remotely prepared to get wet – went digging through the thousands of shells instead.

“What about this one, this one’s cool?” Jamin would hand me one of the jingle shells and point out something about it he liked. I kept tossing the shells about with my feet, occasionally picking one up, inspecting it, and determining whether or not it was good enough for keepsake. There’d be one that was oh, so close to being perfect were it not for the chip on the side. And I wondered out loud, when there’s so many thousands to choose from, what the rubric was for deciding a shell was worth picking up and calling it yours. Did it have to be exotic and different or weird? Or just colorful enough? Or shinier than the others? Jamin couldn’t decide, but it seemed like his rubric was a lot different than mine. He’d pick up fully-broken shells, funky shells, rocks, whatever and acknowledge how wonderful it was. I was pickier. Too picky.

I found a rare conch shell that could easily still function as a home – not a single crack, not a single hole in the shell at all. “Oh yeah,” I told Jamin, “This one’s perfect.” But Jamin wasn’t all that impressed. “No, it’s not perfect, ’cause there’s not a conch living in it,” he laughed.

Shell BeachAt one point, we started finding bits and pieces of what looked to be black pottery with orange paint on it. It was curious enough that we started to collect a little of it, only to discover that the more we looked around, the more there seemed to be. Ten, twenty, a hundred yards, there was more and more of the broken black pottery with faded orange paint. It became easier to spot as if our eyes had grown accustomed to look for it and nothing else. Jamin and Cora began to collect mounds of it, and we placed it in a pile and discussed what it could be. On a few pieces were the letters, “CH,” or a registered symbol. It took me back to my time in Israel digging through Iron age pottery and wondering whether the piece I was holding was Egyptian or Phoenician. There was a mystery at hand, and we were determined to solve it. As Jamin and I walked looking for more pieces with writing on them, I started thinking through it: it was too much and too spread out to be only from one jar or bottle. It felt ceramic, maybe hardened rubber and broke fairly easily under stress. The “CH” probably spelled “Champion,” and the orange paint and word itself seemed to indicate some kind of sport-related equipment. I told Jamin I thought it was skeet and explained, the best I could, what skeet is. By the time we met back up with Wendy, she’d been thinking the exact same thing.

Searching a beach through a treasure trove of shells and skeet, and I can’t help but shake this notion that we find what we’re looking for – what we were probably looking for before we even stumbled upon the treasure. Earlier this week, I read an article on CNN about how UFO experts have grabbed hold of some of the pictures taken by the Mars’ rovers and claimed they see alien life encased in the rocks. Others have come to call what they saw “pareidolia,” the trick the human mind plays in that we often see something that isn’t really there because our mind wants to bring recognizable shapes together to create meaning from them. It’s the very same thing with seeing Jesus in a piece of toast. And it felt similar somehow digging through shells, seeing in the shells the worst and best of ourselves:

There was brokenness within me built into my drive to find the perfect piece. There was happy, childlike love in Jamin’s discovery that the broken pieces were still whole and wonderful in his eyes. There was such absolute grace in Jamin’s admonishment that what I saw as the “perfect” piece lacked perfection because it was merely an empty house and no longer a real home. There was the mystery of the broken pottery and our very real desire to know the stories that brought the brokenness to this beach – determination in solving a puzzle that would somehow bring us comfort. All summer long, what I’ve seen in myself, in others too, are these very things. We want so badly to find the perfect pieces when there just are none. We could choose to pick up the broken ones and see them as just as beautiful, if not more so, than the ones that just haven’t been around long enough to break, but too often, we end up blaming the whole treasure trove for not having enough of what we’re looking for rather than asking why we’re searching how we’re searching. And I think that’s so very important – to recognize that our perception is our reality and may very well need to be questioned, even if it’s questioned by a seven year-old. That our frustrations, our struggles, our puzzles before us so often have so little to do with what’s right in front of us and so much to do with the baggage we’ve stored up and carried to this very moment where we find ourselves frustrated, struggling, or puzzled in the first place. At any rate, I’m not sure I’ll ever pick up a shell again the same way without seeing how beautiful it really is, but I will be going back to Shell Beach.

My Summer, 2015

DepositI had this moment today driving through the Catskills where I realized I was sipping Pepsi in a glass bottle as I drove a red, Ford truck from the early ’90s, and I just felt overwhelmingly American. I couldn’t help but be a little culture-shocked. Before me were acres of pristine, seemingly untouched conifers lining the mountainside and surrounded by fields of corn. In the valley sat large red barns, black-and-white cows as if from a painting you’d find in Cracker Barrel, a run-down Harry Ferguson tractor or two, and the vibe of rural America in all its depressed, hard-working love. Appalachia stretches all the way to New York in more ways than geography.

To me, this is how America should be seen: on the road – and not the interstate system – sipping a Pepsi. But it was so foreign to what I’ve come to believe is “New York” (living in what’s basically the Hamptons) that I felt somehow removed and jarred by it all. It was one of those strange moments where I could peer over the last five, even ten years of my life and think on the many roads I’ve ridden over that brought me to this one. And how vastly different those roads have been.

In some ways, this summer has been one of the most wonderfully-strange summers in recent history. And I think it’s because of moments like that one. Where you just open your eyes and realize you’re driving through the Catskills and it’s all a little surreal somehow, because you never quite saw your life unfolding in that way. My summer started off with earning a series of certifications I needed (“Team building initiatives,” “First Aid & CPR,” “Lifeguard Manager,” “Food Handler’s Certificate,” etc.) to be able to run the camps where I work. On my birthday, the day after I earned my CPR certificate, I was walking around in Greenport with Johnny Gall when a man collapsed and started bleeding on the street. It was the first time in my life I’ve ever actually had to direct someone to call 911 (and for a complete stranger at that), and that it happened the day after I finished my certificate was, well, just one more of those surreal moments.

A few days later (and this has become a regular thing that sometimes annoys me), someone visiting [one of the two] camp[s] where I work was just beside himself that I was in the kitchen serving him food. “I don’t understand,” he said as nicely as he could, “You have a seminary degree from Vanderbilt, and you want to be here, doing this?!” [This is sort of a general theme I encounter often: that “camp” is not a “big-boy job,” and when are you going to get your “big-boy job,” especially if you have a Master’s degree.] I don’t think anyone means it harshly. It’s just that it’s a position that tends to be associated with someone who’s in their early 20s and still figuring out life, and yet, as I served the food, I couldn’t help but think, “But wouldn’t you want to be doing this?” In St. Louis, I went to a seminar with a friend that was all about achieving financial freedom, and the underlying message of the seminar (which I don’t agree with at all) was that what people are really looking for in saving up their money is to be able to have the freedom to do what they really want to do. If you can plan out you finances early on and in a smart way, you can retire early enough to achieve your real dreams. That sounds stupid to me. Somehow, I managed to figure out how to live on a friggin’ beautiful island only accessible by ferry – and do it cheaply. I’m two hours from one of the greatest cities in the world, and I can take a bus or a train there almost whenever I want. Want to kayak? Sure. Learn how to sail? Why not? Travel around for work? Yup. Live in a haunted cottage? Well, okay, maybe not that one. But help young and old alike learn how to find their true selves all while getting to do the rest of that stuff? Yes. I could go get a “big-boy job,” whatever that even is anyway, or I could just live a little of that dream now. And have a meaningful impact on people’s lives while I’m doing it. But even that is yet one more of those surreal things. Was I right to choose this path that people don’t usually take, that I chose to defy some of the “normal” expectations to money-making and living and dreaming? I don’t know.


Still, as I was driving around this afternoon, and I was thinking about all the roads I’ve crossed and the different directions I could’ve taken, I kept thinking how much I loved the endless skyscape out here. I know those two clauses don’t seem like they go together, but hang with me. Something about the mountains makes the sky so much more grand. Maybe it’s because the sun has more to work with when it’s busy painting its sunset or sunrise not just in the sky but in doing wondrous things to make green trees yellow-orange. Or maybe it’s how much more blue the blue seems against a green backdrop. You do not get this effect in the bay as much. A sunrise over the sea is unquestionably beautiful, but it’s a very different kind of beautiful. It’s one kind of blue flowing into another kind of blue. It’s the kind of beautiful that is repetitive and predictable (seriously, how many sunset pictures can you take before it’s kind of a tired meme?) – and while I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way, it does make the mountain sky a little more appealing to watch at times.

And yet, I am called to the sea. For as much as I love the mountain sky, the waters of the open ocean refresh me whether they’re stilled and calm or churning in a mad splash that threatens drowning. Last week, a gale bringing in gusts of around 80 miles an hour passed over the camp knocking down a few trees and setting a transformer smoking (and eventually on fire). Somehow, I woke up before the storm began at 5:45 in the morning and sat through it in the stairwell of my cottage watching a 100-year old oak sway back and forth like it was a sapling and listening to trees literally five feet from my cottage crack, split, and hit the ground with a thud. Immediately after the rain passed, I rushed outside to check in on campers, review damage, call the electric company, etc. I was at home with myself in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever been. Here on the sea, I knew what to do. So much of life is spent juggling between what we think we love and where we really belong, and sometimes those things can match up, but the greatest sadness I have ever experienced is in discovering where those two things pull us in the most opposite of directions. You can love the skyscape of the mountains, but will you know your heart and calling belongs to the sea? Can you accept that truth not just when the seas are calm but also when the gale threatens to blow your house down? Can you – as surreal as it may be – love the mountain for what it is, temporarily gracing it with your presence, but then return to where you actually belong when your days in the woods are done? Either way, you should at least try sipping a Pepsi in a glass bottle while you drive a red Ford through Upstate New York sometime. I highly recommend it.

Kingswood: ‘a place to rest where wounds get dressed, the table’s full’ – jgarrels

there where the hemlock’s needles spiral
up, up, the conifer in a copse of spruce,
I saw the pink orchid, the lady-slippers swaying
like lanterns to my feet along the stone-staircase, too,

there where a fence once was, between friends, lay
shale and blue sandstone shattered about,
covered in cold, clean, wet-sediment promises
I peered through the teal fog’s hovering vow,

there where the Delaware wound round and rumbled
more like a creek than the claim her name bore,
the mourning dove hushed as the sun sank to sleeping
in the cradle of the Catskills I hear shame no more.

Breaking Out of the Box of Religion

I am someone who very much believes that God cannot be confined to the narratives and metaphors religion uses to describe the immanent divine. Whatever is sacred is so much grander than our meager language could ever do justice, and so I struggle even with the Bible or with the Church in its definitions of God that are often too strangely limiting. This is something I don’t feel alone in, as I’ve moved from Tennessee to New York and seen this struggle all too apparent among my new friends here. What I see is this yearning, this real desire for the “God beyond God,” for something beyond the “box” in which religion – and Christianity specifically – have placed around this grand concept.

And yet, the box is something I know quite well and even love. I did not spend my time in seminary focusing on theology or studying the transcendence of God, as some of my classmates did. Instead, my focus was centered around Biblical criticism. I was fascinated – and still am – by inspecting the box, tearing at it, even poking fun of it at times. I was less interested in the questions about Jesus’ divinity – which I saw as a problem for the theologians in seminary to sort out – and far more concerned with historical questions about what Jesus did or didn’t say, what his family looked like, what his culture and language told us about him or the compelling nature of his life. So, in some sense, despite my view that God was bigger than the box we long to put God into, I spent considerable time inside the box where I was most comfortable, because history was more tangible to me. The discussions about the indescribable God haunted me on some level. Yes, God was bigger. Most will admit that much despite the limits they’re eager to place around God. What else was there to say? Didn’t I have to work with the box I’d been handed, as I’ve only ever got my own social location to work with? I’m a big-picture person, but I couldn’t conceive of what there was to say that didn’t just bore the daylights out of me if we were going to start talking about what happened off the canvas.

Religion, as I’ve come to understand it, has for a long time now been concerned with putting God into this very box. Quite literally, that happens with the ark of the covenant, and it happens again in the building of a temple for God’s residence. Which is not to say the Hebrew mind believed God remained in this one and only spot, but that there was a specific place for God was evidence of the limits of God’s grandness. In the Gospel’s story of the curtain in the Temple being torn after Jesus’ death, you could argue that there was a momentary desire to get God out of the box only to have house churches (and later, cathedrals) once again confine God to an enclosed space with new limits arising in arguments about the nature of divinity. I want to be careful here in acknowledging that I don’t think Jesus was undoing the box Judaism had placed around God. Jesus wasn’t the first critic of the box within Judaism and certainly not the last. And, so too, Jesus wasn’t without his own limits for God’s character. Or at least for how humans should conceive of God. That, of course, raises the important question of what God is not. If God is so much grander than the limits religion have placed around God, where does the grandness stop? I can think of plenty of places in our society where God’s presence should seem lacking, and yet it’s often those very places where God’s presence is also most apparent.

To me, the desire for breaking out of the box is an important desire. I think we need to come to see God as bigger than we might have thought of God growing up in Sunday school or at church camp or wherever, but I also think to toss aside the box and just frolic in nature singing “kumbaya” misses something, as well. While religion has failed in an epic way to bring us the fullness of God, it’s nevertheless been the one vehicle through which our limited minds could experience an important (albeit limited) picture of what’s truly sacred. Many of my friends who have this earnest desire to seek God beyond the confines of religion are, ironically, not having that need met outside of the confines of religion. That’s not to say they don’t get glimpses of it on a hike through the wilderness or in a conversation with a friend, but the communal approach to religion, the (often-failed) goal of achieving some higher, loving good, the guarantee of guides and mentors through the process of searching for meaning in this silly life: I don’t see that happening without at least some aspect of the box. Even if we’re needing to scream at the box, it’s still the box we find ourselves needing to work through in order to feel as though God has heard us. So, by all means, let’s break out of the box, acknowledging to live big and to love bigger than we might have imagined ourselves doing before, but before we go constructing new boxes, let’s not forget how important the ones we love to hate really are to us.

Marooned: ‘when the gusts came around to blow me down I held on as tightly as you held onto me’ – cin.orchestra

I cannot see you
‘cross the sound,
save the glimpses where
I’m good at dreaming things
like you,
there on the sand bar,
and you’re standing
with eyes squinted,
your hand a brim
to block the sun as you
search, too, for me.

You cannot see me
through the morning fog,
her low-hanging cloud that
may or may not be
all your very own,
but that doesn’t stop you,
from wading through it
as if to swim,
trusting there’s land
where you last saw him.

we see you each
here at play and laughing
‘neath the pear tree
by the crimson Ferry House
as if nothing else ever was
but right now,
a home from home for some,
as if the ship that wrecked
that brought you here
was the best thing
that ever could’ve happened

or, it seems,
we’ve come to learn
to be marooned alone
isn’t so bad
if you know who you are.