Every year I end up in charge of camp for Southeast Alaska Lutheran youth.
I don’t love camp. Sorry.
It mainly has to do with the fact that I contemplate peeing in my sleeping bag every night. I go through amazing arguments about why this could be a good idea since I wouldn’t have to exit my cozy cocoon or risk peeing on a porcupine. I have an unusual fear of accidentally urinating on a roaming porcupine. It’s not as insane as it sounds because it almost happened and that makes one a little more cautious.
I do get the pastor spa room at camp. That’s total sarcasm. My cabin doesn’t come with a rabid squirrel so I should be happy. I hold no bitterness for my colleagues who talk about camp experiences that include cabins with electricity, heat, plumbing and a coffee maker. I like the rustic edge of our camp, especially the easy access for porcupines.
Camp is also challenging because people try to have conversations with me before I’ve showered or had coffee. I resemble Emperor Palpatine in the morning in more ways than one. As one of my favorite campers commented, “Pastor Tari, you look different in the morning. You have bags and wrinkles.”
“Yes, and I can shoot electricity out my fingertips and speak commands of destruction with a gravelly voice.”
This is what I meant to say, but I think I only grunted.
I don’t love camp. It’s exhausting and hard work, but I love what happens at camp.
I love watching kids get annoyed with each other, defy who others think they are, and laugh until juice pours out their noses. I love the discomfort and delight. I love the mess and the making up.
You can’t keep up an act for a whole week under such great pressure, so one’s true character and fissures in faux community start breaking through. We don’t have a lot of bells and whistles at camp, so most of the entertainment comes from learning to be in relationship with each other. And from me teaching them a million verses to the diarrhea song. Never gets old.
There is drama; there is delight. Those are the signs of a healthy community and a healthy relationship.
Love isn’t singing Kumbaya in harmony while keeping a sanitary distance with synthetic smiles.
It’s the messy business of the great joy that comes from discovering the mystery of another human being and the conflict of bumping up against another who has the audacity to see the world differently.
A relationship means you fight well and delight well.
We wrap every day talking about highs, lows, and God moments. A lot of people talk about how they see God in the beauty of camp, but I see God in the arguments, tears, hurt feelings, and revealed baggage. All those places where the brokenness of relationships is brought into the light so forgiveness and grace can be possible.
Jesus didn’t say a word about seeing him in the sunset or singing in four-part harmony. “Wherever two or more of you are gathered in my name, I am with you.” That’s not balm for dying churches. It’s recognition that whenever there’s more than our own selves, we will hurt each other and need forgiveness. That’s kind of the core of who Jesus is, unless I missed the whole point of the cross and resurrection thing.
I do love when I get to be in charge of fires at camp. I can never be a police officer or fire fighter because when the personality test asks, “Are you strangely fascinated by fire?” or “Do you look at the objects around you and wonder if they would burn?” my answer is always yes.
Fire is a great image for the messiness of relationships. It warms and comforts, while at the same time burns holes in your fancy synthetic jacket. Delight and uneasiness. That’s the life of love.
• Tari Stage-Harvey is the Pastor of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church.