Why I Love Camp

The following post appeared Friday, July 16th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

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I love camp. I love being surrounded by more trees than buildings. I love singing Grace to John Williams’ theme from Superman. I love seeing the half-exhausted, half-excited faces of the campers at breakfast. And I love conversing with children and teenagers because every once in a while they will say something unexpected and profound amidst all the buzzwords and canned phrases that they know will be considered “correct” answers during afternoon Bible studies. Invariably, the profundity of their unexpected contributions comes in the form of the simplest, most direct response to a question.

Here’s why this practice is so profound. Over the years, we adults learn to hedge, to inject some wiggle room into everything we say in order to maintain some deniability later on. We prevaricate, deflect, and obfuscate because we’ve learned from the incessant 24-hour news cycle that a juicy sound byte can tank a career. We’ve learned that a verbal defense mechanism is a necessity for survival.

And with our deniability glands working at full capacity, we say, “Well, that’s not exactly what I meant,” or “I’m not sure you heard me correctly” (when, of course, I purposefully didn’t say exactly what I mean). But the problem with speaking equivocally creeps in over time: prevarication erodes the truth that has been in each of us since God knew us in our mothers’ wombs. When we hedge, we atrophy the muscles that store the truth, and we cut ourselves off from bits of the truth that is within us.

Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t monitor our words to make sure we always speak hospitably and graciously. Hedging is simply a cheap and ultimately ineffective way to achieve what hospitality and grace achieve naturally – namely, speaking in a way that keeps conversation open and kind. Hedging achieves this end by leading us to speak obscurely so that no meaning can quite be pinned down. Hospitality achieves the same end by leading us to speak truth uncoupled from judgment. One of the epic failures of our time is the withering of this graceful truth when we bury it under our own insecurity and our need to conform to society’s agreed upon level of appropriate vagueness.

Okay, let me get back to why I love camp. I love camp because for a week I get to ascend into the clean and invigorating air of youthful wisdom. The young people just haven’t lived long enough to acquire toxic levels of prevarication. They say all the things that were the first to erode in us adults. God will always be with me. You are my friend. Jesus is awesome. And after a few days of rubbing elbows with the young people, I remember the need to nourish the root system within myself that keeps the truth from eroding.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to preach until Tuesday. I had enough time to drink in the campers’ wisdom, so that when it came time for me to speak I was in less danger of hedging and wiggling. (This was a good thing, too, because children can spot phony commitment a mile away.) I had five minutes to talk about Moses and Aaron, and I had played with several ways to approach the story as I thought about speaking to the campers. When I stood up to speak, I knew my direction of travel, but I was unsure where I would end up.

I began to talk about how Moses was making excuses to God, about how he’s no good at public speaking, about how God might as well get someone else. I looked out at the campers, and then I told them to look at each other. Just then, I realized where the direction of travel was taking me. “God gave everyone special gifts,” I said. “A few of those gifts are within us, but most gifts come wrapped in the people around us. Just because we aren’t good at something doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. It just means we have an opportunity to invite a friend to help us.” These words rang true as I said them, but I didn’t feel them within myself before speaking them. I felt like I was absorbing these words from the young people staring up at me. What a gift.

Of course, as usually happens, I spoke the words aloud, but I’m probably the one who benefited from them more than anyone else. I needed the injection of youthful wisdom to find that truth again, the fundamental truth that I forget more than any other. I am not alone. I am with God. And I am with other people. We are God’s gifts to each other. This is the truth, and it leads to another true statement.

I love camp.

The decade (or) when God found me

God has known me since I was in my mother’s womb, so at least since 1982 (though there is that whole eternity thing to take into account). I have known God for somewhat less of an interval — only ten short years. My knowledge of my own walk with God began in the year 2000. And because Y2K forgot to blast us back to the Stone Age, I have this handy Internet thing to tell you all about the last decade. What follows is (and I’m well aware of the cliche) a top ten list of my journey with God. I offer these moments in hopes that they serve you as a guide for reflecting on the last decade of your life. What are the moments of consolation; that is, when did God find you? On the flip side, what are the moments of desolation, or when did you lose God? You will notice both appear in this list because both are important in shaping you and me, the people God is creating.

#10: The first baptism (2006) My summer as a chaplain at a children’s hospital is drawing to a close. In fact, I am working my final overnight on-call shift. This night, I have already been present with two families as their children died. It is 2am. I am trying to catch a few minutes sleep. The pager assaults my eardrums. A nurse on the sixth floor needs a chaplain. I grumble during the elevator ride because no one really needs a chaplain at 2am on a non-ICU floor such as the 6th. The nurse brings me to the room of a three-month-old baby. In a mix of Spanish and English, his parents ask me to baptize him in preparation for surgery, which the infant will have in the morning. After some halting discussion, I agree. The godparents have brought a small bottle of water, filled at their church’s baptismal font. The mother holds the infant. I sprinkle water on his head and say: “Yo te bautizo en el Nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo. Amén.” And God finds me.

#9: The funeral (2009) Some situations are just so big or so brutal or hit so close to home that reliance on God is a requirement and not the fallback position (which too often is my default setting). This is one of those situations. I get a call that a parishioner’s daughter has died suddenly in the night. I rush to the house and stand outside the door trying to find the courage to knock. God finds me cowering on the front stoop. I take a deep breath and enter the house. Every day for a week and a half, I spend time with the grieving parents, and I know without a shadow of a doubt that my normal strength is unequal to the task. I officiate at her funeral, my first for someone my own age. And God is there.

#8: The first two months of seminary (2005) I go to chapel every day for two months. I read the prayers in the book. I recite the psalms and the creed. But I’m not praying. Something is missing: faith? passion? conviction? Ironically, I lose God when I first arrive at the place to study God. Then one evening at the end of September, I am leading a prayer at an evening worship service. I say, “Assist us mercifully, O Lord…” I read these five words and everything changes. I realize to whom I am addressing my speech — the Creator of all that is. How could I ever forget? But I did.

#7: I love you (2004) I am sitting with my girlfriend watching a movie. My arm is around her, and she is resting her head on my chest. It’s an ordinary, everyday kind of moment. And without warning or forethought or the classic over-thinking which I could patent, I whisper, “I love you.” She looks up at me, smiles, and says, “I love you.” We hold each other just a bit tighter. And the burning glow in my chest tells me that this is right.

#6: Breakdown in the office (2008) I have been at my first church for three months. A few days before, I had visited my seminary and saw many of my friends, who dispersed to the four winds after graduation. It is Sunday morning, and I have just finished celebrating the early service. I walk back to my office, remove my vestments, close the door, shut off the lights, fall to the floor, and crumble. I sit with my back to the door so no one can come in. And I cry and cry and cry. I can’t stop, and I can’t figure out why I started. I quietly hyperventilate, hoping that the coffee-drinkers in the next room can’t hear me. I can’t stand the thought of smiling and chatting and handshaking. I want to be anywhere but where I am.

#5: Confession (2007) I ask my spiritual director to hear my confession in preparation for my diaconal ordination one week later. I clean out my closet and bring a heaping box of clothes to the church’s opportunity shop. We enter the sanctuary. I kneel at the altar rail. I have written some notes on yellow legal sheets, and they are crinkled from being in my pocket. I begin my confession, and quickly the tears begin to flow. I confess the big things like my presumptuous reliance on myself above everything else. And I confess the little things like cheating on that math quiz in fifth grade (sorry Mrs. Goldberg!) I am utterly exhausted when I finish. I feel empty, but in a good way, like there is more space in me for God to fill.

#4: Laying on of hands (2004) I am a camp counselor. It is the second to last day of camp, and I am helping one of the priests during a healing service. The teenagers coming for healing have wounds beyond their years: broken families, eating disorders, depression, suicidal thoughts, anger, pain, disease. I ask God to use me as a channel. Fill me to overflowing, I pray, so you spill through me into these children. And God does. I am so full that for twenty minutes after the service, I weep the excess Spirit from me. (If this sounds familiar, you may have read about it here.)

#3: Ordination to the priesthood (2008) My family arrives at the church early and discovers it has no air conditioning. It is June and blistering outside. I am glad to be wearing seersucker. A few hours later, I am kneeling before my bishop and his hands are gripping my head firmly. The rest of the priests are touching me lightly. I can feel my father’s hand on my shoulder. I am overwhelmed. At the end of the service, people come to me for the customary blessing from the new priest. I don’t know what to say, but the words come anyway.

#2: The year (2006) For several months, I ignore God’s prompting to examine the state of my relationship with my girlfriend. I refuse to notice that love has already eroded into convenience and is well on its way to indifference. In mid-May, we attend a Red Sox game. They lose. That night, she proposes the end of our relationship, though it takes another month to dissolve. I push away the abyss threatening to engulf me because I need to focus on my chaplaincy at the children’s hospital and there’s enough pain there for several lifetimes. When the chaplaincy ends, I let myself feel the effects of the breakup. At the beginning of my second year of seminary, I fall into despair. I isolate myself, presumptuously assuming that none of my friends has ever felt this way. I escape into the fantasy world of an online video game. I don’t surface again for many months.

#1: The moment with God (2000) I visit my college for the first time in October of my senior year of high school. I step onto the quad and know in the deep place within that I am walking ground being prepared for me. The following Sunday, I am in church. My father is preaching. I realize that I can’t hear him. Then I realize I can’t see him. But I know what he’s saying. The same deep place within is speaking his words directly into my soul. I am with God for an indefinite moment. My senses are overloaded. I am made anew. A few days later, I sit with my mother on the couch. I say, “I have something to tell you.” She waits patiently while I try to form words. Suddenly, I burst into tears and cry for an hour. She holds me. When I finally stop, she looks at me and says, “I know, love, I know.”