I was on my third (and last) pair of footwear. My hiking shoes were sopping wet from the deluge I was caught in the day before. My running shoes were dripping with muddy water from my ill-advised trail run through the mud puddles that morning (they would eventually travel home, still wet, in a plastic bag). I was in sandals this time. They dry quickly and are easy to hose off. It had rained every day so far, and the rain would continue off and on all week. Everything was wet. A thunderstorm knocked the power out on the first night. Another had rolled through the previous night, and a light rain persisted most of the morning. Now, however, the rain had mercifully given way to some rays of afternoon sun, which were shining in diagonal beams through the tree canopy.
I looked around. The benches were vacant, but the amphitheater could easily seat a couple hundred people. It was set into a hillside, and a creek was babbling happily nearby. The sunbeams shone on the stone altar and the rough-cut wooden cross at the front of the worship area. I was in a holy place.
“Holy,” the 8th grade boy had replied. I had asked him to describe his camp experience in one word or phrase. Holy. His answer came to mind as I sat in that place of worship. He had not wanted to come to camp and he did not particularly believe in God, he told me, but his parents wanted him to get confirmed. In three short days, he had gone from unbelief to believing in God, and he was actually excited to learn more. A 10th grade girl pulled me aside to tell me about her renewed interest in faith. She said that she always believed in a God “out there,” but she was finally getting to understand this “Jesus thing”: that God is relatable and accessible. A 10th grade boy wearing a pirate “iPatch” (he had made the Macintosh logo on it) said that he never really fit in at home or at school. “Here, though, I can be myself. And I fit in.”
It was the first week of summer camp at Camp Lutherlyn, and 64 confirmation students from 10 different Lutheran churches in western Pennsylvania were there, along with their pastors. Some of the students were there because pastors or parents compelled them to come, but most were excited to be at camp. They spent a significant portion of each day (3-4 hours) with the pastors in confirmation lessons focused on the 10 commandments, Apostle’s Creed, Lord’s Prayer, sacraments, and Lutheran heritage. The rest of the day was spent with Lutherlyn staff members in various activities.
If I was wet and muddy as I sat in that amphitheater, it was nothing compared to some of the campers. It would seem that rain at camp provides more opportunity than crisis. Campers took the opportunity to make spectacular splashes in mud puddles. They ran and slid on their butts across the wet playing fields. The weather also provided perfect mud-whomping conditions. Mud-whomping is a Lutherlyn favorite that involves sliding, rolling, and slithering in particularly greasy mud, as well as splattering this mud on fellow campers.
But what makes camp holy? Surely, not the mud. There is mud wherever there is rain. And yet…there is something about the mud at camp that must be different from the mud at home. After all, most young people would be inside on a rainy day at home, probably interacting with some electronic gadget. The campers admitted as much, when I asked them. But there were no cell phones or video games at Lutherlyn. They described their distance from these things as “being free” from them. Being free? They didn’t miss them? “No,” one boy said, “I am happier without them.”
What makes camp holy? Surely, it wasn’t the confirmation lessons. After all, the young people had confirmation classes back home, many of them one hour every week. And yet…there is something different about the confirmation classes at camp. Two 10th grade boys, who appeared largely disengaged from a lesson that I sat in on, approached one of the pastors and asked if they could talk with him. They asked him how he came to believe. And he shared his faith story with them.
What makes camp holy? Surely, it’s not the games and skits. The entirety of Wednesday night at Lutherlyn was pirate-themed, from dinner all the way through evening wor-arr-ship and campfi-arr. The staff got really into it, and that got some of the campers into it. On the surface, this appeared to me more hokey than holy. During the pirate-themed games after din-arr, I noticed a group of girls that was opting out of the games to sit down in the (wet) grass. They waved to me and called me over. I wondered if they thought the games were lame and were talking about that, but they were not. They were discussing faith. They were reflecting on their confirmation lessons and some things they had talked about with their counselor. And they invited me to join them. “Are you, like, really religious?” one asked me. And we talked. They were trying to figure out if they really believed or not.
What makes camp holy? I contemplated this as I sat in the amphitheater with the sun peeking through the trees. I looked to my right and saw a group of campers walking up the trail as a staff member helped them identify edible plants and spoke with them about creation stewardship. Then a group of campers rode down the muddy trail on mountain bikes. One of them was wearing white shorts, and I said a silent prayer for his mother as the flying mud neatly decorated his backside. Then there was silence, and I was alone with my thoughts on holiness. How was I going to describe this camp? It seemed a weighty proposition.
It wasn’t complete silence, not really. The creek was still babbling, and the breeze was rustling the leaves. I sat in peace and in stillness. It was beautiful. Then a loud voice from behind the trees to my right interrupted the stillness: “ALL CLEAR?” An answering shout came from far to my left: “ALL CLEAR!” Then came a distinct “Woo-hoo!” followed by a progressively louder z-z-zz-zz-zzz-Z-ZZ-ZZZ-ZZZ. The zipline passed right over the altar, and I saw the young lady fly by the rough-cut cross. I smiled. I was not alone.
I was sharing this experience with other people. Together, we were interacting with each other and the word of God. It was not the mud, the lessons, the games, or even the vibrant worship services. It was the presence of God active in Christian community. These other things were just the mediums, the means of grace.
Church leaders in the Northwest and Southwest Pennsylvania Synods of the ELCA are evidently having discussions about the value of camp, especially after their most recent synod assembly. The pastors at Confirmation Camp were overtly supportive of camp, but they shared that some of their colleagues are either indifferent or openly antagonistic to the camp model. Has camp outlived its usefulness? Is it just a money pit that pays no dividends in faith and church membership? These discussions are often done in the abstract, away from the place, away from the stories. I lived the stories with some of the campers at Lutherlyn this week. It is a place where God is present and active. It is a place where it is safe to doubt and question, a place where faith is discussed with peers and mentors. It is a place of inclusion for those who have been outsiders. It is a place where God interrupts your heavy burdens and self-absorbed thoughts with a reminder that you are not alone: “I am with you!” God shows up at camp, like a zipline through a sanctuary.
Maybe we could sum it up in the words that Lutherlyn uses: “Lifechanging adventures in faith.” That certainly seems appropriate for describing the things I witnessed and experienced. But if I had to describe it in one word, I think I would stick with the 8th grader in the midst of his conversion experience:
This post reflects on a portion of a study conducted as part of the Confirmation Project. Learn more about this exciting project, which includes 5 denominations HERE!