Whereas congregations specialize in nurture, education, worship, and service, camps specialize in converting lives, turning people inside out. Not many folks walk out of church school saying, “This changed my life.” Many a camper leaves a weekend retreat or weeklong camp proclaiming those words for all to hear.
That’s not to fault churches. They teach incrementally. Camps just happen to teach and confront disruptively.
Camps have a way of converting people from consuming to communing, or to say that another way, from exploiting to exploring. Let’s face it. Resist as we might, the whole economy depends upon consumerism — buying and selling. And frankly, most of the products purchased and consumed have little resemblance to the natural elements from which they have come. When camping we return to those natural elements, not simply as depicted on screen or canvas but in our own habitat, where we smell the soil and hear the crickets.
Funny thing: at such times in such places, our pulse tends to slow down.
As that pulse slows, so too, one’s striving gives way to the spirit of Sabbath. At camp, the perennial need to earn our way and thereby to prove ourselves gives way to the spirit of grace that loves us simply because God is love. Therein lies the heart of the Christian Sabbath. Therein lies the soul-settling power of camping. Such a change comes not simply by relaxing but by remembering our core convictions regarding the grace and mercy of our Savior. We can reclaim those convictions when the environment confronts us with compelling evidence of grace and mercy. The savvy retreat leader seizes on the moment to invite contemplation of such lofty and defining values, such gospel-proclaiming confessions.
Camp can also convert from complacency to conviction. Sabbath rest does not make one passive and self-indulgent, the inactivity that grows out of pointlessness in life and/or depression in pain. Camping invites us to encounter the ultimate alternative, a vision of God, the kind of vision that convinces us that what we’ve been saying and singing in our Sunday worship really is true, is defining. In turn that vision heals, invigorates, motivates, commissions.
On the other hand, camp can convert our narrowness to breadth. Our daily rhythms often drive a beat of like-mindedness among similarly caste friends. We disregard folks of different circumstances and differing viewpoints. On retreat, we invariably get assigned to a small group and engage in discussions that “un-mute” the non-conformist who blurts a word that runs contrary to the drift of the groupthink. As the Savior spoke of John the Baptist, right in the middle of us there stands erect a reed refusing to be blown by the wind. Such a “troubler of Israel” bugs the bejeebers out of us. Sometimes such a one spanks the smugness out of us, too, replacing it with a teachable spirit.
Most of all, camps and conference centers have a way of converting us from worldliness to godliness. We sing in the pews of the holiness of God, we discuss the cardinal doctrines of faith in church school, we intercede for the sick in prayer meeting. But, in so many of our daily activities, we operate on our own strength, we organize as if we were really in charge. We play God, failingly, and so we fret when things go awry. When we give up that role and pray, we pray “unseizingly,” unexpectantly. But, when we go to camp, we confront the providential God, the gracious Savior, and the empowering Spirit in ways so compelling that we may even shiver with wonder and weep with joy.
The Spirit of God indwells us always, but our awareness of God and our sheer trust in God soars in those close moments prompted by the camp/conference center experience.
No insult intended against the church in its many other, more typical expressions, but we need a lot more converting going on, and our greatest hope for gaining such conversions is for us all to go to camp.