A Journey in Nostalgia.

canaan summer 2017Teachers get the summer “off” which typically means taking classes or raising their families or working odd jobs to supplement their salaries. Off might be the wrong word but that’s a topic for another entry. I happen to be taking a class on Ancient Greece and to start the class they asked me to read the ambitiously titled, “The Complete World of Greek Mythology.” About halfway through there is a section on the Trojan War and of course the journey home of Odysseus. The author starts the section with a brief discussion of the etymology of the word “nostalgia.” In the typically flowery language of a lifelong academic he explains,

“The English word ‘nostalgia’ has acquired a romantic patina, but its Greek semantic roots have, in combination, a harsher edge: nostos means ‘return journey’, and algos means ‘pain.'”

Needless to say the book has been a bit of a slog. But that breakdown of the word nostalgia has stuck with me the past couple weeks. I have been in many ways nostalgic as I have thought back to memories and experiences from my life and childhood. I’ll just highlight a couple.

When I was a kid my family spent a week at what is today typically called ‘family camp.’ I do not think camp is a super accurate term because we stayed in hotel style rooms and had all our meals made for us but branding is not something I  have dedicated my life to. In any case I loved my week there each summer. There was always good food, good activities, and as I got older a great place to make friends. I went back there as an adult a number of years ago and just the smell of the hallways brought me back, in a wave of nostalgia, to the fun I had had as a kid.

This family camp actually ran an actual summer camp where my sisters and I started attending as kids. I later went through their training program and became a counselor and eventually leadership staff for 6+ summers. I have always thought of this camp as ‘old-school’ in the best possible way. No gimmicks or expensive nonsense here. Just plenty of food, awesome activities and games, and great staff. The camp worship songs we sung were always better sung at camp. This morning at church we sang an updated adaption of a song we sang at camp and the nostalgia nearly knocked me over. I was right back in the camp gym with 200 sweaty campers and staff, reverent and exhausted.

My last example is my families summer house in small town New Hampshire. My great-grandfather bought it in the 1950s as a place to spend his summers in retirement. He enjoyed 18 summers there but four more generations of his family have continued to return there, summer after summer. It’s very old now and it’s not in amazing shape. There is however a photograph of the house in the dining room from what is probably mid-century and it is glorious. The garden is filled with flowers, there’s a stylish car in the driveway. Everything, even in back and white, appears pristine. In moments of nostalgia I long to see the house as it once was, decades ago. I visited it last weekend, however, and sat on the porch on a beautiful afternoon and took a few pictures. The view has not changed much and for that I am incredibly grateful.

I love how the origins of the word nostalgia brought me back the last few weeks. I kind of hate it too. So many images and experiences are indelibly stamped into my consciousness and a smell, a song, a view can bring me right back to remember and experiences those things again with gratitude. But there is undeniably pain there too. A pain at realizing childhood is over, the glory days of that time and place are gone, that things can never quite be what they once were. I think ultimately the tension of the word nostalgia gives it its power. The joy of the memories increases the pain at not being able to go back. But I also think there is maturity in accepting nostalgia for what is it, for being thankful for the good things that have occurred in one’s life. Many have little to be nostalgic about. I hope that whatever we may or may not have nostalgia about we would be motivated to create such moments in the lives of others that they, one day, would have the same mix of feelings I am having this summer.

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A Reason for Summer Camp

I’ve worked at summer camps 7 of the last 10 summers. I’m pretty biased when it comes to how awesome they are for kids and as simply great places that exist in the world. However as anything that provides short-term care and ministry it also opens itself to criticism. People ask (in both well-meaning and mean spirited ways) “What about the other 51 weeks of the year?”, “What about follow-up?”, “What about the cost involved? Is it worth it?”

I only spent a week at a summer camp this year but it crystalized in my mind why summer camp ministries are in fact, “worth it.”

Summer camp is for a large group of kids the only spiritual experience they get growing up.

These kids will never set foot in a church during their adolescence. Their parents are at best dysfunctional and at worst abusive. But for whatever reason, grandparents or scholarships or parents just wanting to get rid rid of them for a week they end up at camp every summer.

And they have a blast.

They have fun and make friends and learn about God but most importantly they feel loved and cared for in a way that for a million different reasons they do not get at home.

I have volunteered with middle schoolers the last two years at my church. I’ve enjoyed it and I think most of the kids I hang out with enjoy it a ton too. I would love to see every broken kid I have seen in the past end up in a safe place like a church youth group. But the reality is they won’t.  These are kids who every day is a struggle. They may become Christians at camp, they may not but whatever happens when they go home it is hard to maintain even a semblance of a spiritual life. But still, camp is all they’ve got. And I’ve seen too many kids grasp for that rope with all their might.

If one’s goal is to see as many kids as possible loved and cared for and given an opportunity to see Jesus as that ultimate reality that provides that than I cannot see another way. Supporting summer camp and other parachurch organizations is a must.

My Journey with Camp (Part 3 of 3)

The next morning after my epiphany I got the news that the two biggest antagonists in my CIT program were being sent home for transgressions on their day off. A bit of me was sad; I didn’t want people to be sent home. But a larger side of me said, “Wow…God must really want me to pass this thing.” And so I set out to do it.

I gave devotions to my fellow CITS and even spoke to the whole camp as part of a chapel we did. The last week I shadowed a chief and stayed in a cabin. No major issues arose. When I sat down with my CIT director for my final evaluation I was confident. I got the sense he was not enormously impressed with me but it didn’t matter. I told him I had done what was expected of me as well as if not better than any of my peers. I think the big change here was not anything tangible it was simply a slight mental shift on my part. People were never going to treat me awesome everywhere, but that was not my responsibility. I simply had to do my best no matter what at all times. People could take it or leave it.

I passed my CIT.

My LIT was 11 summers ago. Since then I have been a chief all or parts of 6 summers. This summer I am a unit director. I plan activities and games, chapels and cabin bibles and am directly responsible for half the chiefs and campers in camp each week. It is in a word, unbelievable. Camp is amazing and fun, difficult and heartbreaking all at the same time. Without a doubt though, I love it. It is not the most glamorous or high-paying job and I realize many people may look at me and wonder why I am still doing this at 26. But overall I have gotten a tremendous amount of joy out of working at camp and will continue here for as long as I can.

My journey has not been short or simple. It has been marked by trials and missteps at every turn. But to close this long-winded episode of my life I’ll say this. God is there, however unnoticeably, working to turn you and me into the tools he desires to glorify him. And in that work, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.—Romans 8:28

 

My Journey with Camp (Part 2 of 3)

I took the next summer off. I went on a summer missions trip with my church. I think some people attribute too much import to this experience in terms of my growth. Did it help me grow and mature? Certainly it did. Was it the magic bullet that led to what occurred the following summer? Not really. Life is complex and lots of factors work together to bring change and realization. I was in contact with the camp director during the winter. He said if I wanted to do the CIT program next summer I would be welcome to. I still remember that first day I got back to camp, walked into the dining hall and shaking the hand of my LIT director from two summers before. He was cordial and was glad to see me. I was happy to be back and determined to succeed with my second chance.

The CIT program involves serving camp in whatever way needed. In my summer it entailed washing the dishes at every meal and cleaning the shower house and bathrooms around camp daily. I still remember pushing my mop bucket up a small hill one morning a few days into the program and breaking down for a moment. This was becoming almost as difficult as LIT.

It got worse.

The CIT is a month long program and as the first couple weeks passed I realized (unbelievably and inexplicably) that I was failing in the same way I failed LIT. My relationships with most of my fellow CITs were awful and my behavior was suffering because of this. This is still a huge question mark for me. I have never been popular or well understood by the majority. But one of the best things about camp was that I got along with most people really well. I had friends, I talked to girls. It was a fantastic alternate universe to my life at home and school. But with LIT and CIT I just could not get along with most of my peers to save my life.

Again here I see a failure of leadership to recognize what I was going through and to understand why I might have been struggling. At one point I was pranked by having shaving cream put in and on my sleeping bag. I was furious and walked across camp to talk to my CIT director. He listened to me but only meekly told the guys to lay off me. No attempt to understand or work with me, just a meaningless reprimand and a desire for me to just get along. I’m not trying to place blame solely on my leaders but to acknowledge that when a person does not get along with a group it is not solely their fault.

At this point however I had the epiphany of my whole experience. One night I realized I could not let the actions of my peers result in me failing again. I had to grow up, do my work and make it impossible to fail.

And quite surprisingly…I did.

 

My Journey with Camp (Part 1 of 3)

I have had a long and fruitful experience at my camp. I have never fully explained my camp story to people. It has not been a secret; at times I have told people openly bits and pieces. Having returned to camp this summer in a leadership position I thought now would be an appropriate time to write out what my journey looked like to this point. I’m telling this story, my story, because I think it is unique and it ultimately served as a vital shaper of who I am today as a person, a leader and a Christian.

I started at camp at the age of 8 or 9. Not the youngest possible age but still pretty early. I started with one week a summer but enjoyed it so much that when I was 13 I went three weeks and four weeks when I was 14. At this point I was ready to move on from being a camper and pursue what I thought was the ultimate job: camp counselor or “chief” as we call them at my camp. My camp has a two year process before you become a chief. First you do a three week Leadership in training (LIT) program when you are 15. This involves a week of backpacking, a week of canoeing and a week rock climbing and on a ropes course. It’s an intense experience but as I prepared to go I felt pretty confident. I knew camp, I knew this was what I wanted and I knew this was the next step. I was ready.

LIT was hell.

There is no nicer was to put it. Aside from certain moments being overseas, doing the LIT was the most difficult thing I have ever done. The funny thing is the physical part wasn’t the hard part. I could out hike anyone and my canoeing and climbing skills were tenacious if not precocious. The difficult thing was getting along with the other boys on my trip; I did that terribly. My leaders responded by failing to understand what I was going through and interpreting my sometimes exasperating behavior as unacceptable. I do not claim to be perfect but at a root level I think I was treated unfairly. This next part probably won’t mean much to people outside of camp but it was ultimately a significant and low point of my life.

I failed LIT.

To move onto the next year, the Counselor in Training (CIT) program, I needed to pass. I had a long conversation with my LIT leader that last night. I think I remember almost pleading with him. But ultimately he thought I needed more time to grow and mature. The clearest memory I have of that night is just bawling in the tent in front of the others. I was convinced I was never going to return to camp.