This past Tuesday afternoon, a ritual began at Procter Camp outside of London, Ohio. A ritual that has happened nearly every week of every summer for generations. A car with kids and adults pulls into the parking lot and camp counselors meet them with huge overly happy grins: “Welcome to camp!”
The kids and their adults lug a ton of gear out of their trunks, they check in with the camp nurse, make sure all the right forms are signed, and then say goodbye… the adults leave and a week of camp begins. This week was no different. Just like most other campers who are there for the first time, there was a mix of reactions—nervous apprehension, jittery excitement, and even grumpy pouting in the corner. “This is stupid!” But this week’s camp was a little different in some ways. For one, it was smaller, at only eight campers. Secondly, they were all there because each of them had lost at least one family member to drug addiction. This was a grief camp designed to give kids the space to share their experience, to recognize they’re not alone, and to find strength and resiliency through building relationships with each other and with God.
It was an exhausting week, both physically and emotionally. I’m still working through everything that happened and what it means; what lessons this last week might have for the whole church, for us at St. Peter’s, and for me as a person. About how we’re called to live and who we’re called to be. But I want to share with you just one reflection I’ve had so far.
In our small group of campers, there was a sibling group of three boys, aged nine, eleven, and thirteen. These brothers were thick as thieves… and they fought like thieves, too! When they arrived at camp that first afternoon, the oldest brother, who I’ll call Danny, didn’t have to say a single word for everyone to know exactly what he was feeling: “This is stupid. I don’t want to be here. I am too tough, too macho, just too cool for all this.”
As I got to know the eight campers, I found myself wracking my brain about Danny. How can we get this kid to open up, to let his guard down so that he can benefit from this week? Finally, one of the two therapists who were there with us said something that completely changed my perspective. “Don’t worry about it. Just trust the process,” she said. Then later that same afternoon, a counselor who grew up attending camp said, “Camp is about genuinely caring for each other, about showing each other that we really do care. And when that happens, people get changed, whether they realize it or not.”
And, exactly as these two had predicted, what we witnessed in this tough, defiant, grumpy young man was a transformation. Over the course of one week, we saw Danny transformed before our eyes. He began to slowly trust that those around him genuinely cared. He began to share the pain and even some of the ambivalence he was feeling about his mother’s death. He began to build friendships with other campers and to turn to the counselors and other adults for advice, assistance, affirmation, and comfort.
Last week I spoke at great length about scarcity versus abundance. This week I saw someone’s life get changed when his eyes were opened to what God’s abundance looks like. I can see now that all of Danny’s anger, toughness, and grumpiness was about protection. From his perspective, there is a limited supply of what can meet his needs in the world. Certainly, there’s not enough love to go around. But even feeling safe, welcome, and a sense of belonging are in limited supply. So, he has to be on guard, lest what little safety he actually has is stolen away. What little control he has over his own life could, at any moment, get pulled out of his grasp. The narrative that’s running on a loop in his head might say something like, “The only consistent thing in my life is me, and I’ve had to fight for what little emotional security I have. No one is going to take that from me.”
But Danny got to experience what true divine abundance really is. When he would build a barrier around himself to protect what little he felt he had control over, what would come swarming over that wall was not an invasion party, come to steal security, love, and belonging. No, instead, the invasion party was a swarm of consistent reminders that there actually was limitless love, acceptance, and belonging outside his walls already. In God’s Kingdom, there’s no such thing as conditional love. There’s no such thing as acceptance only up to a point. There’s no membership test. By the end of the week, save for a few sibling rivalry moments, Danny was consistently turning to his fellow campers for support and supporting them. He was genuinely enjoying the freedom of realizing that God’s abundance is real and that he didn’t have to be constantly on guard.
Philip said to Jesus, “Six month’s wages would not buy enough for each of them to get a little!” That’s the world’s scarcity. Then Andrew said, “There’s a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they among so many people?” We have limited resources. There’s not enough to go around. Yet 5,000 people experienced first hand what God’s abundance looks like.
I don’t have a lot of experience with summer camps. I never attended one as a kid and this was my first summer as a camp chaplain. But what I realized this week is that there’s a beautiful mix between the deeply rooted traditions of camp and quite amazing flexibility. There’s the tradition of singing fun mealtime graces that use TV theme songs like Superman or the Addams Family. The campers and counselors have daily devotional time in their cabins, where people relax and share their lives with each other. And there’s even that tradition of counselors meeting the campers in the parking lot with those larger-than-life smiles and playing goofy and fun-filled icebreakers.
Yet this week, when, for example, the group had just spent an hour in intense conversation about death and dying and it was obvious that they needed to get moving, the tradition was flexible enough to pivot. “Let’s play some kickball! Let’s play tag!” Anything to stand up and get the wiggles out. The therapists and counselors were flexible enough to change on a dime because that’s what the campers needed, even if it wasn’t what was scheduled. And I began to realize as I watched this beautiful dance between tradition and flexibility, that this is what opened not just the campers, but all of us up to a radically life-changing experience of God’s abundance.
Would Danny have gotten the same experience out of camp if we hadn’t been willing to shift when necessary? To pivot? To let go of our own expectations and our own ideas of what the week would and should look like?
It’s not too often that the passages about the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes are actually read on Loaves and Fishes Sunday, but here we are! At noon today, we will participate in something that has become a meaningful and life-giving tradition for us. We will gather to break bread with our neighbors. But, honestly, something I’ve struggled with for a while about our Loaves and Fishes Community Meal is that it feels as if there is a vast expanse, a huge canyon separating the traditions of this sacred space that we occupy at 10 AM and the rituals and traditions… dare I say liturgy?… of the Loaves and Fishes meal. I’m not going to pretend to have the answers to all the questions about how we relate to our own ministries, but in light of our readings today and in light of the eight campers who experienced a taste of God’s abundance this week, where might God be calling us, as a worshiping, loving, living and breathing community of Jesus Christ, to be rooted in tradition, yet flexible enough to pivot? To turn toward the needs of our neighborhood in a way that we are all changed?
Typically at camp, Eucharist is celebrated daily, but this week we celebrated communion just once. In the early afternoon on Thursday, the campers made their own communion bread. They mixed the dry and wet ingredients, kneaded it, pounded it into loaves, scored the loaves with a cross, and baked it. Then, that night we gathered around a campfire to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. And in a moment of living into God’s call to pivot, I half-extemporized a Eucharistic service. We invited the campers, through our words and actions, to experience what it is like to be joined to God and each other through something as simple as bread they’d made themselves. At the end of that communion service, one of the campers came up to me and said, “I’ve never done that before! That was so cool! The bread tasted so good… and we got to make it!” Then, pointing to the remaining bits of the loaf on the makeshift altar, he said, “And can you explain to me… is that really Jesus now?!”
“Yes!” I said. “And you know what the best part is? Jesus is coursing through your veins now. Jesus is a part of you now, and he’s never going to leave.”
If we are willing to pivot when the Spirit says to pivot, something as simple as bread and wine… a few barley loaves and fish… or, at noon today, a chicken salad sandwich and genuine conversation, will change all of us.