August 30, 2012

A History of Camp: Anyone?

I'm putting this up in faith. Just in case you've been longing for a brief historical overview of religious camps, here ya go.

Groups, churches and organizations have been running and conducting camps for decades now and during my two straight weeks of camp (high school then junior high), I became interested in the history. Why do we do these? Who started this stuff? I stumbled upon this article and thought maybe some nerd out there is interested too.

August 29, 2012

At Camp: What About His Chains?

"Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning" - Exodus 2:23-24

"to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound" - Isaiah 61:1

Right from the get-go I knew he was trouble. I walked into my cabin from being outside, where I was instructed to wait to properly greet my arriving campers and their concerned mothers and fathers. A whole week without them. What on earth would they do? Party? Regain sanity? Worry?

They, two boys who I thought were brothers (they were friends) and a mom and dad, had made their way to their cabin, my cabin, to drop off bags and apparently get ready to swim, though the lakefront hadn’t even opened. He--let’s just call him Bo--was climbing and trotting around the cabin as if he owned the joint, barely listening to stern instructions his mom was throwing at him. Something about behaving and remembering what happened last year. “Oh boy,” I thought. He shrugged off his mother’s speech with a simple nod. His dad stood there.

I managed to squeeze in an introduction between their conversation. My charisma quickly faded when Bo’s parents just looked at me as if to say, “Good luck, buddy. You’re goin’ need it! He’s in your hands now!” Their eyes smiled.

“Fudge,” I thought, “What have I got myself into?”

I wasn't sure what to make of what just happened. Was this kid high energy? Did he have trouble listening? Like ADD? Whatever the issue, to seem like I had it all together, I sucked in any worry or concern I wore on my face.

I noticed that Bo and his friend didn’t look at me, to my recollection, not even once. Why was that? They were busy searching their bags for swimming shorts. They changed and left.

A sweet first-camper impression...

It didn’t take long until I encountered their thick skin, willful rebelliousness, and dearth of sensitivity for anyone. Their conversations were negative, full of mean jokes and put-downs of other campers and mocking language about Christianity and spirituality. Heck, I was pleased when they limited their speech to gangs and drugs (as long as they weren't bullying anyone). Yet, eventually though, like all other teenage boys, they incorporated talk about girls too.

Additionally, it was as if they practiced being cold and unaffected by anything spiritual or Christian before they got to camp. "Ok, play the next track. It's a really inspiring sermon. Now, just sit there, unamused, with a blank stare on your face... Ya! Just like that, perfect!"

Things weren’t all bad though. The sound guy for jr. high camp was the youth pastor of these kids. And thankfully, he gave me insights into their lives, their contexts, which are not pretty. Their situations are thick. They swim in violence, drug addiction and a host of gross dysfunction most kids never dream of. I was appalled. No wonder their behavior.

My mind got to thinking about these kids one day and how they’ve been heavily influenced to be who they are. They are products, outcomes, offshoots of their culture, of their soil so to speak. I’m hesitant to use these words, but the point is they are who they are due to their highly-dysfunctional environment. And it's unfair. These kids were born into that garbage. They had no choice.

Now I’m obviously no professional on the idiosyncrasies of the sociological matters at stake here and I’m not saying that these kids are not responsible for their actions. But, they have been formed, fashioned and forged by situations, structures, politics, economics outside their control. Bottom line!

The same thing happened to me, and is still happening. I am here, as me, today, due to the "nurturing" that took place in my life. My past's dysfunction is a whisper compared to their screams. And why? How? Did I just get lucky?!...

(Taking a deep breath) I have strong feelings about this. And it all was sparked by a song.

During the musical worship, we sang a tune originally written by United Pursuit Band called "Break Every Chain." The chorus is simple enough:

There is power in the name of Jesus (x3)

To break every chain (x3)

We sang this over and over again. It became an anthem, because of its simplicity and repetition. But what does this mean? To break every chain? What chains? It is typical to hear talk about chains and slavery and bondage in Christian circles. These are metaphors employed to understand addiction and our overall relation to sin, right? This is biblical language is it not? We are addicted to bullying our peers, we are hooked on images of naked bodies, we are trapped in endless cycles of poor stewardship, cutting or drinking too much alcohol. Most are slaves. All have been. Some, by grace, toil and sweat, have been freed.

But, are there not other chains that keep us bound and imprisoned? Is it only the vicious habits of sin, due to our foolish choices, that we need liberation from? What about, say, a fallen economics? A sick empire? What about a shattered hierarchy? A corrupt government? What about a wounded relationship? A maddening society? What about the things that lay outside our control? What about the immorality we've been brought into without our consent, the sin we were born into? Is there any hope for redemption *there*? What about salvation? Liberation, is it too much to ask for in these places?

When the other kids are standing, passionately singing at the top of their lungs, “To break every chain, to break every chain, to break every chain,” what do I tell Bo and others like him, a kid whose dream would to be free from the humanly-unfit conditions of his everyday existence? What words are left for a kid like this, who’s world he crashed into by no counsel of his own? What about his chains? What about his chains?

August 24, 2012

At Camp: Expiation and the Sinned-Against

It was that room--hot and humid, dim and filled with restless teenagers laying hands on the bodies of friends, that they might be prayed for, healed and ministered to. They were ready for anything to happen, everything, whatever; open and expectant like good young pentecostals, waiting for God to move, to swirl around that humid air in some beautiful flame.

Every night we filled that space to sing songs of praise and worship, listen to the preacher’s message and minister to one another. This particular night was special. It was, according to the preacher, the night he was preparing for months. It was the night his heart beat for, the healing night.

I don’t think I was as excited for this night as he was. My eye didn’t have that glint. See, my kids, being a cabin leader, were not so spiritual acute, with eyes seeing and ears hearing and hearts understanding. Or perhaps they expressed it in ways I didn't recognize. Regardless, no amount of fervency on my part would have made much difference. All this to say, when it came to spiritual matters, my kids were more halcyon and reserved, and thus the climatic, and frenzied, night of healing seemed somewhat irrelevant.

As I had imagined, when the night climaxed, my cabin sat perfectly content in their crooked row of orange chairs amongst the surrounding movement, prayer, tears and, well, healing. Sensing the whole atmosphere was over their heads, I moved around wanting to join in on the action.

I floated to the back, like always, where I watched. Some kids laid their hands heavy on another, asking God for some specific thing, while others moved to gather and comfort a sister. Others swayed in the isles, eyes tightly shut, making their prayers known before God.

I wasn’t sure what to do, where to go, how to pray or anything else. I just stood and made myself available. A small group was praying near me. I overheard a kid ask a leader for prayer. He said to wait until that group was done so more could pray with him. I interjected. I could help pray. No need to wait.

Little did I know I was in the right place, just standing there not knowing what I was doing. I moved in close to the kid to find out his name and that which he wanted prayer for. I hadn't spoke with him before or after this night. He explained his situation.

There was something wrong with his spine. It was bad enough that kids at school knew about it and even made fun of him, though “making fun” would be an understatement because, as he opened up, he told me he tried taking his life. Clearly he was giving me the cold facts rid of the awful emotion he felt inside. His feelings, though, displayed unmistakably as his body folded inward. Shame. Embarrassment. Insecurity. I knew this was going to be no small prayer.

**A Note about the Painting--Read After**

[Painted by Emile Fraint, an 18th century frenchman, this piece is actually called L'Expiation (The Expiation). I know not if it was inspired by true events, but I see this as a pictorial parable with the man being led to his execution symbolizing the sin of one to another. This is a beautiful portrayal of expiation and the shalom God intends for the sinned-against.]

I pulled his cowering frame closer, consoling him.

In sermons and at church services, we often get an earful about us being sinners and needing forgiveness and God’s salvation through his Son’s perfect sacrifice. I’m not downplaying this at all--heaven’s no! But preachers and teachers alike often neglect another important aspect of Jesus’ cross and salvific work. Some have called it expiation. People sin. Yes, agree. But, people are also sinned against. No one sins in a vacuum. And Jesus’ cross not only offers us forgiveness for all the evil we have done, but it wipes away the sins of others, and dresses the wounds others have inflicted that bleed down and cry out.

This is what this kid needed, the boy now sobbing and trembling, wetting the front of my shirt with his tears from all the bullshit other kids had put him through. He needed Jesus’ expiation. He needed God to pull out the knives of words others spoke to him and wipe away his tears.

I told him what was true and what he needed to hear.

“What those kids did to you was wrong. What they said was not because of you, it was not your fault. They sinned against you and God. That was not ok and God is not pleased by their evil. He loves you and wants to heal you now.” He sobbed more.

In the course of consoling him, my heart snapped and I, too, broke down. I wept. It was as if every comforting sentence I spoke was an arrow in a bow, pulled back and released in an attempt to fight off intruding thoughts and memories.

My passion flared and voice grew as I cried to God to do what only he could do: heal, redeem, restore. We stood there awhile, his head leaning on my chest while his crying eyes continued to spill tears like a waterfall down my shirt. His tears were Christ's. His sufferings were never alone.

Eventually my eyes opened and I awoke to the others around us praying. They took over and my job was now done.

I loved the boys in my cabin, but I felt caged, wanting to do something great or profound. I wanted to be used! I wanted to feel like I was being used. Kind of stupid, I know. But God saw my heart and maybe it was him who pulled me to the back, to stand and watch, not knowing what to do, to perfectly set me up to pray for some kid.

I thought it was me, but maybe it was him.

August 21, 2012

At Camp: Having Your Girlfriend Stolen

Foursquare camps, and other big youth gatherings, usually make room in their schedules for at least one night where the boys and girls get split up, opening up space to talk about each gender's respective issues, whatever they may be; a time when boys can talk about boy stuff and girls can talk about girl stuff.

The first night of high school camp was such a night. The boys piled in Okerson, an old wooden dorm-style lodge where most of the dudes slept, and were encouraged to ask questions, questions about anything. Now we all know the anything doesn't actually mean anything. This is after all a religious camp, a Christian camp, where students come to learn about God and practice Christian life in a safe place. So, anything actually means anything pertaining to that, right? Anything within the bounds of religion.

But that's just it. These students started asking questions of every stripe, questions that, at first listen, didn't sound religious or Christian at all. I was blown away by the heap of questions dealing with ethical matters; the ole' what should I do? questions. I was impressed. Their questions showed me that they didn't view Christianity or their faith as a side dish, something that only complimented the main bulk of their life. They understood that faith informs even the trivial matters of one's existence. Perhaps they asked these questions because they were encouraged to. Ask anything. Though this may be true, I want to be optimistic and think that these students see their faith as central, as an important conversation partner in the public square.

During the course of the night there was one question--yes, one--that nestled itself neatly in my mind.

After each kid shouted out his question over and through the crowd, one of three staff members, or a combination of them, would promptly dish out a concise and hopefully biblically-informed answer. Most of the boys, afterwards, seem satisfied.

Halfway during the night, I made my way upstairs where you could look down on the students and stage area where the three staff guys were sitting. A voice from the left started asking a question about his girlfriend. He explained that her ex was trying to get back with her and that he had no regard for him and, well, that she was with him now. Immediately, I thought, "Why do you have a girlfriend? You're, what, fourteen?"

A bunch of the boys bursted out in a frenzied choir in response to the situation. The kid seems pretty mild-mannered and meek. So what kind of advice will they give?

Honestly, it was basic and typical. There was nothing substantially Christian about the answer, apart from it coming from a Christian person. I was malcontent. My brain fired up. What would Jesus have said? This was, for me at that time, a valid question. I immediately thought of Matthew chapter five.

Matthew recorded Jesus' words: "But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. 'You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...'"

Hmm... do you smell where I'm going with this?

I wanted to speak up and interrupt the answer being given. "Nah, nah, nah, that's no good. Does anyone remember what Jesus taught? If someone punches your eye, offer the other, if someone steals your shirt, give him your coat and if a solider orders you to carry his crap for a mile, walk two. Make sure your enemy knows you love him. And if some chump wants your girl, why resist?"

I may or may not be exaggerating. The point is this kid is too young for a girlfriend. In other words, give her up, or she will. After all this is high school. Relationships don't last.

Having your girlfriend stolen? So what! Don't resist. In fact, go up to the guy and tell him he has your blessing!

August 20, 2012

Today A Quote: The Brothers Karamazov

[Anyone who knows me knows the difficulty I have reading--let alone enjoying--fiction. I've tried multiple times. One day, in my room at the Bartlows, wanting to take seriously the advice of multiple academic writers I respect to read fiction (the literary greats), I came across "The Brothers Karamazov" on the book shelf. Reluctently I picked it up, already frustrated because I knew I wasn't going to like it, and read the first page... and for some odd reason I continued to the next page, then the next, and the next. I may have found what I've been looking for.]

The elder Zosima, a beloved Russian monk, talking to Mr. Karamazov:

"A man who lies to himself, and believes his own lies, becomes unable to recognize truth, either in himself or in anyone else, and he ends up losing respect for himself as well as for others. When he has no respect for anyone, he can no longer love and, in order to divert himself, having no love in him, he yields to his impulses, indulges in the lowest forms of pleasure, and behaves in the end like an animal, in satisfying his vices. And it all comes from lying--lying to others and to yourself. A man who lies to himself, for instance, can take offense whenever he wishes, for there are times when it is rather pleasant to feel wronged--don't you agree? So a man may know very well that no one has offended him, and may invent an offense, lie just for the beauty of it, or exaggerate what someone said to create a situation, making a mountain out of a molehill. And although he is well aware of it himself, he nevertheless does feel offended because he enjoys doing so, derives great pleasure from it, and so he comes to feel real hostility toward the imaginary offender."