I recently thought about what I’ve learned at summer camp, besides the fact that you should be very careful which side of the pocket knife you’re using to peel bark off a stick. (Like…don’t press down on the blade. Super advanced, I know.)
I went to various church camps from second grade on through high school, and while I can’t recall the exact year of each incident, I do remember bits and pieces of lessons learned along the way.
Meet junior high Amy. She’s…I don’t know quite what you’ll think of her, exactly, but she’s highly imaginative, enthusiastic, and rocking a bowl-cut-like hairdo and an unapologetic love of all things camp.
The most life-changing thing that happens to junior high Amy at camp is probably that her counselor teaches her how to play Mafia. After one round, in which Amy successfully fakes being the sheriff while killing everyone else around her, the counselor says, “You, kid, are going to be a special kind of terrifying someday.” Amy decides this is a compliment.
Later, after one of the messages, one of the leaders shares her testimony and talks to Amy later about it. “I don’t mean this in an arrogant way,” junior high Amy says, “but that’s not just something I struggle with.”
The leader looks at her, and says, “You will.” And she is right, but for the moment, Amy is doing just fine, roasting almost-perfect s’mores, killing spiders in the cabin when other girls scream and run, and ripping up enough long grass to disguise herself as a bush during a nighttime game of Capture the Flag. (Yes, I’m serious. It worked pretty well, too.) All is well in the world.
A few years later, high school Amy fails at canoeing, finishes a prank war (but never starts one), and completes a high ropes course blindfolded because she is A. not afraid of heights, B. overly trusting, and C. ridiculous.
And when two cabins play Mafia together she realizes that sometimes, every now and then, it is actually not okay to lie, even in a game. She wishes choices were always simple but is starting to think they’re not.
After the Thursday night chapel, the speaker wants to pray for teens who feel called to full-time ministry, and Amy sits crying in her seat because she wonders if she’s been worshiping an idol of doing things for God instead of God himself…and yet, she still wants to be one of the truly spiritual ones up front. She wants to be seen. But that is wrong, somehow, and she knows it, and she does not move, and that, for her, might be more of a sacrifice than an empty dedication done for show.
One week gets hijacked by drama and bickering and ends in, of all things, a campfire where everyone inexplicably gets weepy and starts sharing from their hearts, asking for prayer, confessing sins…while Amy sits in silence, eating a marshmallow as bitterly as it is possible for a person to eat a marshmallow, convinced this is all fake and just a stupid show of emotion and even God is rolling his eyes along with her.
High school Amy is…angry. And jealous of some of the popular girls. And she feels that life isn’t fair and that her emotions are being manipulated and she doesn’t like it one bit. A second later, she realizes that these reactions are terrible and she should not feel these things, but she does. When her counselor pulls her aside for a one-on-one chat processing the week, Amy says something cheery about learning to work better with others. That night, she writes in her journal, “There is something wrong with me. I am wrong with me.”
Looking back, I can see it. It happened gradually and maybe had more to do with all the days in between summers than the short weeks of camp, but junior high Amy became less sure of and focused on herself. She came face to face with the ugly parts of herself. She considered and sometimes questioned what she believed.
Why camp? Probably because it was a place away from the familiar. All the usual ways of gaining approval—grades, participation in church activities, friends who had known you for years and laughed at your jokes and told you how great you were—were temporarily gone. There was just you, a cabin full of strangers, and God.
Most students talk about having a spiritual “high” after summer camp. Not me. Those last few years, I always came back less confident in my ability to be right, more aware of my own sin, my pride a little chipped away. If I had to sum up what camp did for me, it wouldn’t be renewed passion or growing confidence. It would be plain, unglamorous humility.
Obviously, this needs to be balanced with grace, and it was, by the wise Christians around me. But I was much more likely to fall into thinking I was “good enough” than to get caught in self-condemnation or legalism. Those weeks of camp were what God used to shake me out of the complacency of routine.
Young adult Amy is going to camp next week, this time as a leader. I tell you this for three reasons. First and most practically, to explain why I won’t be writing a blog post next Monday. Second, to ask you to pray for the junior high girls I’m in charge of. (I won’t start or finish a prank war this time, I promise.) And third, to ask you if you’re feeling a little complacent. Because I sure am.
Maybe we all need to go to camp. Not literally. But maybe we can all take some time to think through questions that tend to be pushed so easily to the side in our daily lives. Questions like….
- Where am I discontent where I should be content? Where am I satisfied with “good enough” where I shouldn’t be?
- What does it mean to identify something I struggle with and not just stop there, but do something about it?
- What issues do God and I need to work through? Have I been honest with him lately, or am I avoiding something?
In some ways, a lot has changed since I was eight years old and headed to camp for the first time. But I can still use some time to consider who I am and what I believe…and maybe you can too.
Anyone else have any good camp memories to share? Spiritual or otherwise.