Thoughts on Camp

Last week I was back at the camp where I grew up and have spent most of my adult life. I was the Dean of a Junior High Camp of about 150, and it was Friday night (the last night of camp). I lead the evening worship service, and we began with this skit where a few people walked to the center of the group covered in paper and cardboard. The lights were all completely out as they made their way to the center where there was a firepit. They lit the fire, took off their shells and placed them in the fire and it got bigger. They stretched, embraced, and made their way back out into the crowd. You know, this illustration of rebirth or shedding of skin. Get it? It’s the last night?

Anyway, you can imagine what it’s like sitting in a group of 150 people your only lights being the stars and this fire in the center of all of you, cracking and popping. You look around and you see these people you spent a week with: eating, sleeping, playing, singing, laughing, learning, triumphing, looking stupid, and ultimately growing a lot. You think about how tomorrow you’ll leave all these people, and then you look up at the beauty of the night sky and see that fire burning. You don’t know exactly what they mean, but they do something to you that sends you over the edge. You are overcome with an emotion you can’t explain and you start to cry. Your are a 14 year old guy who is doing everything possible to assert your manliness for girls and guys alike, but not even you can hold it back. You cry as if you are nothing but emotion, nothing but feeling. You don’t know exactly what you are right now, but you know you feel it through your whole body, looking at this fire. 

This is what I saw when the skit ended and it was time for me to speak. I wanted a moment of silence. A moment to hear the fire crackle to see those old shells burning. To take stock of all that was in front of us. As I walked to the middle of the group, I realized how much everyone was already emotionally touched. I would give this inspired talk about the phoenix and the butterfly. About shedding skin, about becoming something new. I don’t really know if it would have mattered though. I probably could have read out of the phone book, and they would have still wailed their eyes out. I was probably working harder than I needed to at that moment. We did what I thought was a really cool activity where everyone walked around simple showing a slip of paper where they had wrote something their new selves wanted to tell everyone. I saw these beautiful images of people facing each other, turning over their cards without a word, and embracing. And, of course they were still crying. And, again, I probably could have had them draw a picture of a cat, and they still would have cried.

Not that I’m trying to downplay the role of worship in a church camp, but they were primed for it long before we said a prayer or sang a song. We had built to this all week. It was partly something we did and partly something that just happens when you throw people into a situation like this. It’s camp. If you’ve been, you probably understand. If you haven’t been, you probably think it’s hokey and gets pretty annoying, and I understand (we do talk way too much about it). But, for those of us that were raised on this, it is a defining part of our life. Camp taught me to be ok with myself. Beyond that, camp taught me that myself could be something pretty cool. I learned how to talk to people at camp, I learned how to be caring and compassionate, I learned that I could make things happen if I really wanted to. If I listed it all, I wouldn’t finish this post today.

I’m writing this on the day that the 2013 Lakeshore Summer Staff leaves camp to reenter society at large. These kids will go back to college or, in some cases, start college. They will go back on a high, but some will also hit a low point. Campers from the summer will or have already started school also. Many of them will wonder why school can’t be more like camp, even why church can’t be that way. There are plenty of reasons, but I think we camp people are also part of the problem. We think that camp is this magical place, and in some ways we are right. But, a big part of the reason a bunch of junior high kids can be reduced to weepy sentimentalists by something as simple as a lighted fire and a song is because of something they have felt themselves becoming. I think part of the sadness is knowing you have become this and feeling like you are going to have to give it up.

And, we very often do give it up. We go right back to our worlds where other things are more important. We go back to our closed-off worlds where we are constantly trying to be updated on something and accomplishing something and setting our own agendas and avoiding most everything we can that we don’t choose. Camp will not allow those things. Further, at camp, we don’t find it strange to talk to people we barely know. We are brave enough to share something with a group or sing in public. We trust our friends a little bit more. We realize we only have a certain amount of time, and we better get out there and do something cool and enjoy it. 

Now that you’re home, camp people, are you locking yourself away? Are you avoiding eye contact? Are you trying your best to find something mildly interesting on your smart phone or television instead of going out and making up a game to play with your friends? Are you going back to your whisper voice when you sing in church? Have you hugged anyone? That world outside your door is even bigger than the one outside your cabin door. We don’t often look at it that way, though. Our regular world often feels restrained and small–limited to schedules and deadlines. Just remember that you are in charge of that life even more than you are at camp. So, here is a list of things that I think might help you still feel what you might be missing if you’re missing camp (or if you just managed to make it to the end of the article and want to understand what on Earth I’m talking about with all this camp stuff):

-Light a candle before you do something during your day and make it something special 
-Tell a friend or new acquaintance something cool that happened to you today
-Just take notice of where the sun is in the sky when you’re outside today
-When there is nothing on on TV, make up something to do that you haven’t done in a long time
-Stop your day and just watch something happen around you
-Sing loud with a group of people
– Ask someone how it’s going and really hear what they have to say
-Take about 3 times in your day just to sit still. Have a conversation, don’t do anything, but for that time stop worrying about what you have to do
-Don’t dare go to bed without being outside for a moment first
-Talk to someone not your age, not in your immediate social group

Maybe that will get you started. In the end, this isn’t as easy as I make it sound. But, to the staff of 2013, and everyone else who knows what I’m talking about. To the 150 or so kids I got to spend the week with. For all the things I watched you do last week that made me laugh and get weepy. For the way we got close in almost no time at all, remember this: You did this. You made this happen. It is in you, and it has not left you. Shake off all the stupid stuff in your world that you think you need now that you’re back. It just makes your backpack heavier. Get rid of it. You won’t miss it. You won’t miss it like you miss camp. 

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