Church Camp, Blackberries and Thorns

Berries in my back yard

“Until we find love, our labour is in the land of thorns.”

Last week I drove from Langley, British Columbia to Gull Lake, Alberta, which is about a 750 mile drive over the Canadian Rockies, each way.  St. Philip Church in Edmonton was sponsoring the first ever Antiochian Orthodox youth camp in Western Canada.  The camp was, it seemed to me, quite successful.  We had 23 children ages 7 to 17.  The camp facilities were excellent and the program went smoothly.  The daily services were prayerful and the kids stayed mostly awake during the teaching times, and there was continual running and laughing and jumping and screaming and hugging during the activity times.  By the end of the camp, all of the campers and staff were like old friends, each already looking forward to next year’s camp.

But camps are a lot of work—a lot of work, especially if there isn’t already a tradition to follow and every activity and exigency must be anticipated and provided for in advance.  And once camp begins there is a lot of work and very little sleep—especially for the cabin counsellors and the camp directors.  For clergy, it is pretty easy.  All I was responsible for was to teach once a day and lead prayers and liturgical services.  I could catch a nap in the afternoon and slip off to bed early if I wanted to.  But I seldom went to bed early because often the most fruitful conversations I have with older campers and with the staff is late at night.  Worn out by the day, teens and young adults often open up late at night in ways they wouldn’t normally open up in the day time.  They ask questions late at night that they might never ask in the busyness of the day.  And even if they don’t ask any questions, just hanging out with the young people earns credibility with them.  They begin to see that I actually like being with them.  Later, when they are ready to talk, they feel that they can approach me.

I think it is a good idea for kids to go to Church camp.  I still remember a YMCA church camp I went to after sixth grade (and I remember very little else from that period of my life).  A good church camp experience lasts a lifetime, it helps the kids know that they are not the only Orthodox Christian young people in the world.  It give them opportunity to make friendships that can last a lifetime.  It gives them an opportunity to experience an Orthodox lifestyle that includes daily morning and evening prayer and to experience teachers and other authority figures who are gentle and kind.  It gives them a chance to experience their faith in a new environment and to begin to make it their own.  When my children were young, I was hesitant to send them to camp (I was not a very trusting parent when it came to my children), so I volunteered to work at the camp.  That’s how I initially got started in Orthodox camp ministry.  This week too, we had a few parents volunteering.  It think that’s a good way for parents (like me) to let their kids have a good camp experience but still be close enough to keep an eye on things.  Plus, there is always work to be done and more hands make the work a little easier.  Also, the parents may just get as addicted to camp as the kids do and turn out to be great supporters of the camping ministry in the future.

Just after I got back from the camp, I was speaking to a recent convert to Holy Orthodoxy about the camp, and he wanted to know what exactly I thought made the camp “successful.”  In his previous church camp experience, success was measured in how many children made “decisions for Christ,” and the whole camp experience was seen as auxiliary to that one main goal.  I explained to this person that Orthodox youth camping experiences are very different from that.  At an Orthodox youth camp, the total experience is what is important.  It is important that the campers have a fun, prayerful, educational and love-filled experience.  The goal is that the children experience God’s love in the community of the Church.  Everything is about experiencing God’s love, not just the services or the explicitly religious parts.  And while it is certainly our hope that this experience of God’s love in the community of the Church stays with the Children all year long (and all life long), we do not look for any specific response from them except whatever comes naturally from them—most generally in the form of smiles, giggles and expressions of friendship.  

The words of St. Isaac speak to me when I think of all that went into camp and the joy that seemed to flow from all of those who worked so hard: “Until we find love, our labour is in the land of thorns.”  When we love God and love others, the thorns of hard work seem to melt away.  Even my long drive to and from camp seemed blessed.  I got to listen to a recording of a new book on the Septuagint (“When God Spoke Greek” by Timothy Law), which was interesting enough to keep my attention during the boring parts of the drive, but boring enough to be ignored during the stunning parts of the drive through the Rockies.  I got to pray and chant psalms along with the chanters of St. Andrew Church (in Riverside, CA) which I had recorded on my phone.  The whole experience was a blessing—a lot of work, yes; but a blessing more.  Love makes the difference.

Now that I am back home (in the rain) and getting back to my normal routine, I find myself thinking about the campers and staff, praying for them, and feeling joy in my heart concerning the whole experience.  Life goes on, and I work to do at home too.  There are thorns enough here.  But to tell you the truth, I don’t generally notice them.  It’s kind of like picking blackberries.  The thorns are huge and sharp and plentiful (and you do have to be careful), but the berries are fat and juicy and delicious, and when you see them, you hardly notice the thorns at all.  It is not until the end of the day, when your bucket is full and your mouth and fingers are dark purple, that you notice the scratches on your arms and rips in your clothes and little trickle of blood from that one that got you as your reached for some particularly plump berries.  Yes, the thorns were there, but you hardly noticed them.  May God help us to love the berries in our life and hardly notice the thorns.

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