Ever been to summer camp? Ever send your kids to camp? Better yet… have you ever been a leader at camp? Bless your souls, and extra jewels for you in your heavenly crown! It is not a task for the lighthearted. You VBS (Vacation Bible School) leaders know what I mean… you don your tye dyed staff shirt every morning and cut out what seems like thousands of paper circles, and then count billions of colour coded beads for the ultimate friendship bracelet, only to have your camper go into complete meltdown mode because you chose the wrong background colour of string. No one sees it, you spoiled, little brat! (Did I say that out loud?! Oh my, not a very Christian like attitude – will need to confess that at campfire tonite.) I have only been to sleepover summer camp once in my life. I have mixed memories of it. On one hand, I enjoyed the activities (became the fabulous archer I am today starting at summer camp) but the stress of pre-pubescent, introvert apprehensions constantly flare up when you are in close quarters with 8 other girls in a hot, sweaty cabin for long periods of time without the comforts of home. Just sayin’.
I did learn some survival skills at camp, though: bring salt with you when you catch frogs in the leech infested swamp. Sunscreen is slightly important. I became an expert at changing in a sleeping bag. Learned how to whistle with two fingers to attract cute boys, and how to endure long hours in a deflating, plastic dinghy with a slow leak. You will survive seaweed. I also learned to fake it.
I recently read an article by a seemingly accomplished online writer who shared her experiences as a Catholic-raised teen who attended evangelical Christian summer camp for most of her growing up years. She even did leadership training and became councillor for her own cabin. And although she knew she was raised differently than the other bible wielding, kumbaya singing, born-againers, she learned the lingo and wrote out her testimony along with the others. I’m sure she knew the four spiritual laws and had prayed the sinner’s prayer over s’mores and stories as the embers of the staff campfire dwindled late into the night. But, I wonder, did her church camp truly change her life? How many of those teenage friends became divorcees, or struggle with self esteem, or felt isolated as new moms? Did they still support each other as they vowed they would over stringed friendship bracelet pacts?
We have learned to fake it. We know what we should do, so we pretend. We say we spent our two hours of daily devotions reading the psalms, but really we just doodled in our notebooks. We say we practised our memory verse every day for the last week, but really we just spent the last half hour cramming to get our token badge for memory work. We go to hear the missionary speak of saving the “unreached” tribes, and sit through his slideshow, but secretly envy the girl two rows ahead who has the best. hair. ever. We say we love our neighbours, but are clique-ish and spread rumours and gossip.
Now don’t get me wrong, I think summer camp experiences do have the potential to shape lives. I think gospel seeds can be sown, and I believe God changes the lives of countless young people. But only if we are honest. I also think summer camp has changed from my “back in the day” experiences. The frogs are no longer easy to catch… we’ve poisoned our lakes. Staff now no longer have to have to learn how to whistle, but they do have to complete a 3 hour long online course on vulnerable sector safety and proper conduct. I’m sure they still have to count out and colour code beads… but now they do it according to the Pinterest instructions and ordered the craft supplies online via their Amazon prime accounts. Campers now have to be tolerant of and ignore the outcries of kids with special needs who are included in their cabins. They still share stories over campfires, and then their Instagram accounts. They not only have learned how to change in sleeping bags, but they have also learned to hide the scars from last year’s cuttings.
It’s hard to be a kid today. And yet, I think our kids are so much more aware now. Does that make it better or worse? I don’t know. Do we, as adults, still sit in our Sunday pews and smile and nod as we reminisce about camp songs and tell others we will pray for them as they go – while our teenagers talk about gender fluidity and what the Bible says about artificial intelligence?
I pray, that as my children have their own experiences of summer camp, they they not only learn how to put a worm on a fishing pole, but they learn that the fish have a significance in God’s world. That they learn not only to swim and build sand castles but that they learn to be real. That they learn that art and the world around them are created for God’s pleasure and that He gives them these things to enjoy. I pray they learn that friendships are deep, and that the people they play games with will struggle with pain and rejection and doubt their faith. And that it is okay. It is not just about learning your Bible verse and saying the sinner’s prayer. It is about asking questions, and not understanding, and being fearful but overcoming your fears. It is about being vulnerable. And trusting that the God who made the starlit sky is still in control, and smiles down at you as you lick the sticky, marshmallow goodness off your young and full of potential face.