May 31, 2022

The Liturgy of Camp

I am formed by the liturgy of camp; by singing to music led by amateur guitarists, pianists, and bongo drummers. We sat on a worn hardwood floor and listened to chaplains tell the stories of their lives and of God’s action in the world, all the while whispering to one another about what came next, telling secrets and laughing under our breath into a space made holy by our half attention and full presence. Each week, we gathered, still seated on that hardwood floor to share a cup of wine and a plate of bread, passing it from one set of dirty, sweaty hands to another. We would laugh and whisper, having no idea what we were doing, but knowing, somewhere, somehow, that this was set aside time. But also, perhaps, that it was time connected to all the rest- to the games, friendship bracelets, canoe trips and picnics where we would sit under shade trees and imagine a different kind of world, to the old table in the back of the main gathering room where generations of us would secretly carve our names into the soft wood with ballpoint pens knowing without knowing that we were a part of something bigger than ourselves. My understanding of church is still rooted under those shade trees, still carved into that old table, still sitting criss-cross on that worn hardwood floor, laughing and learning what it means to be the body of Christ together.

Almost every summer for the last 20 years, I’ve spent at least a week at an Episcopal summer camp where I, myself, have experienced the transformative power of community and where I have witnessed countless others do the same. I found myself, my faith, and, ultimately, my call to the priesthood at camp. For the last three years, I’ve been privileged to serve as the Chaplain to the Episcopal Camp and Conference Center’s (ECCC) annual conference. In the midst of a global moment of upheaval, reckoning, and an undoing of the very institutions we have long believed would protect us, camp directors and program directors and facilities directors have continued their faithful ministry. They have wept for the loss of things they came to believe as mission critical, made impossible choices with very few right answers, imagined new possibilities rooted in the real and not in the idealized past, and they have, together, challenged one another to dream bigger, to draw the circle wider, to be afraid and then to try anyway.

The superpower of camp is to be able to take cheese balls, a half-empty bottle of tempera paint, a few strips of fabric, and a surprise rainy afternoon and turn it into a few hours of real encounter with Jesus because it’s a real encounter with community. I am in awe of the creative, ever-flexible, deeply grounded, faith-filled work of my colleagues in the camping community. In this moment when the reality of the world no longer allows us to pretend that our institutions will protect us, at least not all of us, the Church has an opportunity to hold up the pieces of itself. It has the opportunity to look at them and to discern, in community, whether they still serve the kingdom we’re called to build or whether they serve what was, what cannot be any longer and whether it’s time to let them go, to let them die in order for something new to live. If ever there were time to be afraid and then to try anyway, it’s now.

This summer, Episcopal camps around the country will once again be welcoming new and returning campers and young adult staff. For the third time in as many years, the program will be different because the world is different. And yet the truth will be the same - camp is a place where you can learn what it is to belong; as you are for all that you are, and, then, what it is to transform the world through that radical belonging.

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21, NRSV)

I give thanks to God for all the camp community has to teach us and for all the ways they point to a new way of imagining a whole church, a whole world into being and I pray that we pay attention to their faithful work and witness in new ways as we all seek to do the same.