Church camp: 'An encounter with Jesus'

Church camp: 'An encounter with Jesus'

November 13, 2014
Written by Staff Reports

In the last year, more than 150,000 people participated in a program at one of more than 60 UCC Outdoor Ministries Centers. The camp and retreat centers serve local congregations, non-profit groups, families, individuals and business groups. For information about the UCC's Outdoor Ministry Association, visit their website, or contact your Conference office. Photo material provided by the UCC's Maine, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin conference offices.

"As of Old, by the Lakeside, He came to those who knew Him not"
      With these words, Albert Schweitzer closes his watershed book, "The Search For the Historical Jesus." The attempt to find Jesus by scholarly work is not all that fruitful, Schweitzer argued at the end. We find Jesus as we have always found him, "as of old by the lakeside."
      I think of those words when I direct camp.
      It is no surprise that church camps are largely found on lakesides. The nights are especially enchanting and wondrous. Campfires on the lakeshores are moments of enduring power for the hundreds of thousands of young people who have sat there looking out on the glassy water.
      I just know that no matter how incompetently I have directed these camps, Jesus has met these kids just as he met those disciples on the Galilean sea.
      And their lives have been transformed in ways that none of us can really imagine or fully understand.
      I've been privileged to share my faith with many campers for the last nine years and there are not words to express my satisfaction. These weeks are among the most rewarding times of my year and I look forward to them as a child looks forward to Christmas. I confess to the gentle reader that I approached my first camp with fear and trembling. I remember what I was like as a child and I knew how children can be in their criticisms of adults.
      But my fears were groundless.
      Children and youth at camp, for the most part, are there with an encounter in mind and more often than not, their expectations are met.
      The encounter with Jesus Christ happens in a variety of settings at camp. On the lakeshore by the campfire, to be sure. But also in the dining hall where the Doxology is sung to so many different off-beat tunes that there is no database program large enough to contain them all.
      "OK, this afternoon before we eat, let's sing the Doxology to the tune of the theme from Gilligan's Island." What?
      The times after eating are times of unmitigated silliness when adults can freely make fools of themselves on purpose. Children get a whole new picture of how adults act when they get seriously religious. They might even get the impression that this religion thing is actually more fun than anyone could imagine on a Sunday morning at St. John's by the gas station. "Up in the Air, Junior Birdman" is not found in The New Century Hymnal or any other hymnal. It's just part of the camping oral tradition, a sort of secret society with its own language and its own enduring magic.
      The encounter with Jesus Christ happens in cabins when kids learn to live with people they barely know. It happens when they have to negotiate social conventions that transcend school and family. It happens when they experiment with the limits of who God might be and where God in Jesus Christ might be leading them.
      At camp adults are able to speak about God with the campers even when speaking about God is difficult. Directors ? even ministers ? can be just as tongue-tied about God as anyone else. Lack of eloquence about God is allowed at camp, because camp is a place of discovery where stumbling on a tree stump is expected while walking through woods.
      Ministers might especially find camp-directing a joyful challenge, for it is in camp that we are challenged to put our hard-earned learnings to the test.
      How is it possible to put into simple terms a complex faith? Well, Jesus put it best. "Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it."
      Jesus must have thought that this faith is something that could be easily articulated at camp, "by the lakeside as of old" where Jesus came to those who loved him but were perplexed by his message.
      Camp is a place where one can embrace a childlike faith without embarrassment or disclaimer. I can recommend no greater joy.

The Rev. Jim Gorman is pastor of Faith UCC in Milwaukee, Wis.


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