Endorsing Camp: a “talk” about Lakeshore and why you should support it!

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.

Following the Followers on a Trip Down Memory Lane, or My Week at Camp

Sometimes, I can be a really nostalgic person. I think the side of me that loves telling stories is that person. But I love remembering the past not to get stuck there but to help understand the present. Suffice to say, I spent a week last week helping out at a camp I had worked at nearly a dozen years ago doing the exact job I’d first held there, the P.U.F., or Program Utilities Facilitator. It’s essentially the camp gopher or could be described as the camp caretaker. It’s the behind-the-scenes backbone of camp jobs schlepping water and food where they need to go, anticipating problems and solving them before they ever became problems. And it’s just something I’m really good at doing. I’m the kind of person that if I could change the whole world without anybody knowing I was the one to change it, I’d jump at that chance.

To step back into that role was both a stroll down Memory Lane and a reminder of who I am and who I’ve always wanted to be. A friend described it comparing it to moving into a new house but not before driving by an old house you’d lived in long ago first. There was the sense that I’d crossed both figurative and literal oceans since having last been there. The swim was absolutely exhausting but those who’d only dipped their feet in the water couldn’t see how anybody could view the swim as anything but fun. I felt at times too old, incapable of describing how vast and dangerous and graceful the ocean really is to those who are yet to really encounter it. That’s not to make their experience thus far sound immature. They were to me incredible, loving people with so much to offer the camp. A few of them even carried a kind of wisdom of their own, perhaps crossing a few oceans a time or two themselves, even teaching and challenging me in powerfully positive ways, and yet, I felt a little like I’d changed in such a profound manner in ten years time so as to almost be silenced or quieted in their presence. Does a stroll down Memory Lane, even if it leaves you with plenty you want to say, not also leave you somehow humbled and voiceless if only for a moment?

In a way, I felt followed. I’m not entirely sure what I mean by that. That I was stepping into the role of a leader, perhaps? On some level, yes, because I chose to step up when that was needed, but I don’t think I mean “followed” in terms of being trusted or believed in. I think I mean something more along the lines of people chasing after me in a loving or caring way, to make sure I felt welcome, really welcome: followers leading, which are the best kind of followers. Whatever you want to call sacred, I think that kind of serving spirit really gets to the core of what we all need to be fulfilled. And in that sense, the week was packed with plenty of genuine conversation, real talks so to speak: in the seat of a little red truck, on a canoe sitting backwards and facing one another, in the beds of an infirmary, rocking back-and-forth on a pontoon boat, or along a dark trail in the middle of the woods.

Somewhere along that trail, I remembered the words I’d heard earlier in the week from the director of the camp who paraphrased someone else – “If you want to know where you’re going, look down at your feet to see what direction they’re moving in. If you don’t like where they’re leading you, turn around.” Sometimes, my feet just turn me in circles, but maybe sometimes we need to go back to where we’ve been to be reminded why we go where we go.

So, my feet have now taken me on to St. Louis, and I’m finally feeling ready to break out in a sprint forward.

On Prayer

I signed up last week to be a “prayer partner” with Lakeshore United Methodist Assembly, a Methodist summer camp I frequented as a kid and worked at for four summers, and in the next few days I’ll be assigned someone on staff to pray for this summer. I haven’t always been the most prayerful person, if by “prayer” you mean kneeling or bowing your head and beginning a sentence with, “Dear God” or something similar. But then again, I don’t think we have a very healthy understanding of what prayer is, either.

It seems to me, too often, we think prayer is about outcome. I pray for someone sick or hurting, and God will heal them, or I pray for a job, and God will “open a door,” or I pray for someone’s summer, and they’re going to have a great summer, and the outcome will be good and that’ll be because God intervened to make it so. And that’s a bunch of hooey. What of those for whom no cure or relief will come or for those who remain jobless or for those whose summers isn’t going to be the greatest they could have asked for? I don’t believe in a God who works on behalf of some and not all. I know far too many people (and have been one myself) whose prayers, if prayer is solely about outcome, have gone unanswered.

The typical Christian response to this critique is to say that God doesn’t always give us the answer we want, just the answer we need. Or sometimes God’s ‘no’ is God’s ‘yes.’ And that’s poetic and pulls at the heartstrings, and I even sort of like the metaphor that runs against the whole health-and-wealth gospel where God gives you everything you want if you ask for it and live a good life. But it still revolves around the idea that prayer should have a goal, and the goal is either God’s yes or God’s no.

To me, the goal is process, not outcome. I think of prayer as being more meditative. It’s about awareness which breeds empathy and leads to connection within community. I’ll spend my summer praying for someone not because I think God will intervene like some booming voice from the sky that shouts, “Thou shalt have good summer!” but because in the process of praying for somebody else, I make the effort to stop being so absorbed in my own little world, and then, as a result of prayer, I’ll hopefully be moved to intervene to do what I can to make their summer a tiny bit better. It’s the notion that God moves through us, not because of us or without us.

In that sense, prayer is technically still about outcome, I guess. But in a world where too many Christians say, “I’ll pray for you,” while my atheist and agnostic friends are the ones who actually step up and do something, it’s time we had a healthy conversation about what prayer is supposed to be. It’s not, “God, be with this person so I don’t have to be.” It’s, “How can I help? I’m here; just tell me what to do.” If prayer doesn’t move people to act in that manner, it’s fruitless; it isn’t even really prayer. But that’s also a scary thought, because if we’re honest in our efforts to consider others outside of ourselves in our prayer lives (and I’m preachin’ to myself here), we’d be doing a hell of a lot more to make people’s lives better. It asks of us our time, energy, and money: and those are three things we don’t necessarily want to give. Prayer, though, can and should alter our mindset toward that end, and when it does, it’s communal, because when prayer moves us to act for others, we’re acting for ourselves at the same time.

So, I’m hoping my prayers this summer will be more than just prayers. At the very least, somebody is getting a really awesome mix tape (or two) and several encouraging letters. And if I can do more, I will. In the meantime, I’ll see where else prayer leads me.

A Trip to Camp, or Surveying the Remnants of Eubanks Bank

Yesterday, as I was driving to visit the church camp I used to work at, I had a moment where I decided that if there’s a hell (and if I go there), I will probably spend eternity in a continuous loop of being forced to drive Highway 641 North between the interstate and Camden on what has to be the most boring stretch of road ever constructed. Inevitably, I’m always stuck behind a car going forty in a fifty-five, and the speed limit should’ve been bumped up to sixty eons ago.

Camp, though, is the opposite of hell to me, and maybe that’s why it’s such a pain trying to get there, since you’re likely to twiddle your thumbs on the steering wheel in anticipation that whatever camp holds is good and can alter your current mindset of “not-good” or whatever else the world outside of camp seems to always deliver. It’s a sanctuary, a holy ground, a tabernacle, a sacred grove. It’s home and family and memories of family – the ones we’ve hurt and been hurt by and the ones we’ve loved and been loved by. And so, it’s a refuge of sorts.

That said, I think there’s a fine line between seeking refuge or replenishment and seeking to escape, and sometimes the same place can be both, and sometimes, we need both of those things to cope, but when I sat down with the old staff (and by “old” I mean “wise” in case they’re reading this) – whether it was a candlelit Mexican dinner with Martha or closed-door conversation spouting out painful honesty with Gary or silliness and serious banter with Chris Alexander – I’m convinced that, at camp, we find ourselves always able to say, “Here, it’s okay to be you.” I think anybody who’s ever been to any half-decent camp, secular or sacred, would have similar findings.

Earlier this afternoon, I set out on a mission of sorts to locate a part of camp that bears my name. A few years ago, one of the staffers built an orienteering course in the backwoods of camp property than ran along a creek called “Polk Branch.” Using a compass and a small map, you’re tasked with the responsibility of finding ten locations named after former Wilderness camp directors. They’re places like the “Taylor Tall Beech Grove” or the “Brock Grassy Knoll” or “Pulliam’s Squeeze.” And one of them near an embankment is called “Eubanks Bank.”

Orienteering Map

When I set out to find my little spot in the woods, I put the compass in my pocket and decided I didn’t need it. The map looked easy enough to follow, I told myself, but about thirty minutes in and on a tight schedule, some part of me was debating whether I should try to recall exactly how to use the compass from my Boy Scout days. I wasn’t exactly “lost.” I knew those woods well enough (because I’d been lost in them before), but for a split second or two, I did have the sickening feeling that I wasn’t prepared or that I might not be able to find what I was looking for. When I stumbled upon the first marker in a copse of beech trees, the tension eased up and instead of trying to figure out what to do with the compass, I settled on just following the creek and letting it lead me where I needed to go.

The orienteering paperwork describes my little spot in the woods thusly:

Eubanks Bank: named for Philip Eubanks, Director 2006, this embankment rises up about 5 feet above the valley and flattens out like a table just above the creek and floodplain. There are signs of old cornrows in the ground here that are still visible from when these woods were farmland.

When I stumbled upon the marker, I sorta crouched down in the remnants and kind of admired the serene scene much the way I imagine an explorer planting a flag in the ground to lay claim to new lands. I powered on to Al-Chokhachi Balcony and a few others before I ran out of time and had to head back.

As I was walking back to the road, I thought a lot about my refusal to use a compass on an orienteering course. It almost seemed to defeat the purpose in a way. I had this map and this compass both of which gave me straightforward directions (quite literally) but instead, I chose to let the creek and the wind be my guide. I thought about how the compass and the map were symbols of religion and religious texts to me, but somewhere along the way, I’d been so angry with the compass and the map that I’d gone the extra mile to also ignore the creek. And yet, the creek was a power to be reckoned with. On the surface, it’s quiet and peaceful and glides along the little pebbles, but it’s a great mover and shaker – one that carves the whole landscape and replenishes the roots underneath. For too long, I’d turned a journey into a destination, but with the compass and the map in my pocket, it all came flooding back – who I am and the things I need to cultivate and care for. The veins and crunch of every yellowed leaf, the birds soaring overhead, the call of the creek flowing into itself: who needs a compass to know where they’re going? Or, to quote Tolkien, “Not all who wander are lost.”

Driving back to Jackson on good old Highway 641, Tennessee was beautiful. The redbud is in bloom leaving a lavender touch on a green and gray landscape. The pine trees have kept their promise through the winter and are still green. The road lies and leaves the false impression that you’re surrounded by land as flat as Indiana, but in fact, if you pay attention you’re sure to notice rolling hills and even a cliff or two somewhere between the interstate and Camden. It was a drive I can say I thoroughly enjoyed.

Where the Past meets the Future.

“Saying goodbye” has sort of been the name of the game and a major topic of my posts these past few weeks.   Time is flying by and September 13 will be here before I know it.  In some ways, it hasn’t and won’t really hit me until it’s here, but all these moments with friends and family have made me incredibly nostalgic.  And sometimes, I think it’s hitting me more that I am leaving than it is any one of my friends.

I went to visit Troy and Ally at Lakeshore yesterday, and I said something to Troy, like, “I wonder how different things will be two years from now?”  So many of my friends are married and having kids (who will be toddlers by the time I get back), after all.  Troy pointed out that things are probably much different now than they were two years ago.  Boy, that’s the truth.  Except this time, the change will happen without me.  I’ll change too, but in a separate bubble from everyone else.  Or does the internet, letters, blogs, email, or phone calls somehow keep me “connected” to the world?  Probably not enough to avoid the reverse culture shock, but as disconcerting as some of those fears and worries may be, I couldn’t be more ready to get on that plane.

Troy and I went sailing, if you can call it that, on the Persimmon, Lakeshore’s sailboat.  There wasn’t enough wind to keep us moving, but luckily, the “party barge” came along and “tugged” us to Eva Beach, where we put the boat up for the season.  It was nice being out on the water.  When we were putting the boat up, we noticed a blob attached to the side of the boat.  I’m not sure what the blob was exactly, but I’m convinced it was on its way to becoming “swamp thing” if the boat had not been pulled out of the water soon.  Troy blogged about it on the Lakeshore Blog, as well, and I uploaded pictures of our sailing excursion on Flickr, including a picture of the blob.  If you know what it is, please let me know.

I took the liberty of uploading a few other pictures from this past week, including some from a trip to see Sam Hatch in Memphis and several from my adventure with Kurtis MacKendree to the unexplored portion of my grandfather’s farm.  I won’t say a whole lot about that trip, because the video below pretty much tells all.  I will say, though, that it was nice having Kurtis here in Jackson and a good way to say goodbye to him.  He leaves for Ohio State five days after I leave for Morocco.  It really hit me how much I will miss him; he’s been very much like a little brother to me, and I’m thankful to have gotten to know him.

Being on my grandfather’s farm again was a good experience for me, as well.  Walking around in the woods or in the creek with Kurtis reminded me a lot of my childhood.  I recall walking some of those fields and trails with my grandfather.  I was a quiet kid who would run around in the fields imagining my playmates rather than having real ones, but there was always a simplicity about the woods and the little creeks or the animals that couldn’t talk back to you.  It was solidarity, not loneliness, and I grew up valuing that simplicity.  That was another thing about our trip I appreciated – the simple living that comes with camping and hiking.  There are no worries in the world; it’s just you, the wind and trees, and maybe the one armadillo we happened upon.  It’s strange how the moment you disconnect from the internet or from your phone and despite all those things that are supposed to keep us “connected,” you realize just how disconnected you really are from what actually matters.  I have to be honest, that’s something I’m looking forward to with the Peace Corps – finally being connected to something that matters.  Here’s the video of our exploration onto the hundred fifty acres of my grandfather’s farm.  Enjoy!