Dispatches from Summer Camp
As I mentioned in my last post, I’m spending this week hanging out with a bunch of 8-12 year olds (and older kids serving in various other capacities) at a summer camp northwest of Calgary. I’ve been speaking at chapels in the morning and evening, eating with the staff and kids, swimming in a freezing cold river, sitting around fires, and and generally loitering about the place for the rest of the time. At the risk of stating the obvious, speaking to young kids does not exactly represent my natural habitat. But it’s been good to be dragged out of the comfortable and familiar for a stretch.
While I have a few fleeting moments of WiFi, then, here’s a collection of miscellaneous observations, experiences, and reflections assembled during the week thus far:
- One day earlier this week, I told the kids that they should feel free to ask me any questions at all about God or faith or whatever. I wasn’t expecting queries about the mechanics of the Trinity or anything, but I was anticipating some potentially thorny questions. First one: Do you have to fold your hands in order for prayer to work? I smiled.
- Good coffee is often in short supply at a camp full of young people. I’m not proud to admit it, but occasionally desperation has driven me to drink Folgers that has been sitting on a burner for 4+ hours. Occasionally, the director has pity on me and brings me good coffee (French press!) from his house just up the hill. He is undoubtedly adding jewels to his heavenly crown.
- God has made a very beautiful world. I was walking back from swimming in the river one day and I came across a deer walking across the same river. We stopped and considered one another for a while. I was almost certainly more impressed with the deer than it was with me.
- Some kids have hard stories. Really hard. I spent some time yesterday hanging out with a young man who came to camp from a youth shelter where he is temporarily living after dropping out of high school. He hasn’t seen his dad since he was a toddler and his mom struggles mightily with addictions. In chapels this week, we’ve been talking about the conditions necessary for lives and faith to grow and flourish. It is so sad that some lives must emerge out of such difficult soil.
- There are a few Muslim kids here this week. After hearing the story of the Good Samaritan, one of them said in response to my invitation for reactions to the story, “I think it means that whatever our race or religion, we should all help each other.”
- It is kind of fun to clap your hands and sing silly songs.
- A counselor approached me this morning with a question. “This morning, I was reading my kids the story of Moses and the exodus from Egypt. I came across one part and I kind of stopped, then skipped over it before reading the end. You wanna tell me what’s going on?” He handed me his bible and pointed me to the following passage in Exodus 4: At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. So the Lord let him alone. I gulped, cast a plaintive glance in the direction of my burnt coffee, and managed a weak smile. We talked for a bit about cultural context and the interplay between human culture and language and divine inspiration that runs throughout Scripture. But mostly I just congratulated him on his editorial decision in leaving that part of the story out.
- Evidently, kids puke at camp.
- There’s an 83-year-old gentleman who spends many of his summers volunteering in the kitchen here. He lost his wife a few years ago so he comes and hangs out with teenagers and young kids, making food, helping out, laughing, telling stories. Sometimes we chat during the day about politics and religion. He used to work in immigration so we talk about refugees and about what it means to welcome the stranger. He told me yesterday, with a smile and a wink, that he’s adopted my kids (who have also been helping out in the kitchen all week) as his grandkids. That made me smile, too.
- A room full of teenage boys has a very odd and alarming smell to it.
- Speaking of teenagers, the group that’s working in the kitchen spent part of yesterday baking bread. As I write these words, they’re wandering around camp passing out bread to people along with notes of thanks and kindness. One of them just dropped half a loaf off at my table along with a note thanking me for speaking this week. I feel barely worthy of such a kindness.
- In what is surely becoming a truism, one of the chief benefits of living “off the grid” for a few days is that we can be gradually weaned from our dependence on our devices. The first few days, I would restlessly pull my phone our whenever I was on my own after evening campfire, but gradually I began to settle into more contented rhythms. I’ve read two novels in four days. I’ve gotten some reading for work done. I’ve sat out on the front porch of the lodge I’m sleeping in and dozed in the summer sun while flies buzz around my head. I’ve watched the squirrels. I’ve gone for walks. I’ve prayed.
The last thing I’ve observed has been perhaps the most welcome. I was nervous before coming here that I wouldn’t be able to hold the attention of a bunch of young kids who were overtired or hyper-stimulated or whatever. As it happens, I’ve mostly just told some of the stories that Jesus told. I’ve talked about Samaritans on roadsides and priests and Levites and donkeys and lost sons and mustard seeds. I’ve talked about how little kids held Jesus’ attention (and admiration!) far better than religious know-it-alls. I’ve talked about how these stories are the roots that help our faith take root and grow.
And you know what? I’ve noticed that these simple stories are enough. Jesus told good stories—stories that capture the imagination and invite us in, stories that force us to reevaluate what we’re doing and why, stories that invite us into new ways of looking at and living in the world. And even in our hyper-stimulated “entertain me!” times, telling the stories that Jesus told is enough.