Sermon: Our Place
Texts: Psalm 23 (CEV); 1 Peter 2:4-5a, 9-10
Date: July 21, 2019
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
It’s just a place on the planet—but for me a sacred place, a holy place, a place where God dwells. Church camp. John’s song (“Place on the Planet”) is about the place that most significantly holds my heart, N-Sid-Sen—our Pacific Northwest Conference camp and conference center on the shores of Lake Couer d’Alene. N-Sid-Sen’s name comes from a Couer d’Alene tribe term for “Point of Inspiration,” and it certainly has been that for me, many times over. But the message of John’s song “Place on the Planet” suggests that any place might become a point of inspiration—wherever one finds “that Child of Wonder, Child of Vision that I lost along the way.” You may also have places set apart as places you go to find yourself again, places set apart from your home, work, and ordinary routine that revive you when you go there. Perhaps you also have a church camp (or other kind of camp) that makes up some of the threads of the tapestry of you, whether that camp experience was long ago or something you participate in regularly.
Speaking to you about camp today is an opportunity for me to tell you a little more of my personal faith story, and an opportunity to consider why we as a denomination and conference value keeping church camps going. Church camps play a unique role in Christian formation, even though they may serve only a fraction of the church members at any given time. Clergy comparing notes find that many of us heard the first stirring of a call to ministry at a church camp. I suspect that a great many people who make up the core lay leadership in our churches were also blessed by a camp experience somewhere along the way. Getting away to a beautiful, nature-y place to join an intentional religious community for a few days opens the door for the Holy Spirit to work in exceptional ways.
The first church camp I remember going to was a Presbyterian camp somewhere around Fairbanks, Alaska when I was in 3rd grade (I think). I know Mom took me there because she had great memories of going to camp as a youth when her mom sent her to camp because she loved camp. It’s a tradition passed on generationally in my family, as it was in my husband John’s. That’s part of the richness for me; it’s an intangible but valuable part of our family inheritance. So I landed at camp because Mom wanted to pass on her inheritance.
My memories of that first camp are fragmentary. I was there in a cast up to my knee because I had undergone an orthopedic surgery on my quirky left foot in the weeks prior to camp. I was supposed to keep that plaster cast dry, but the counselors (with Mom’s permission) let me get into the lake, which I was dying to do, by bundling up the cast in plastic bags and launching me out with my behind in one innertube and my cast propped up on another. Awkward, but it made my little heart sing to be able to join the lake fun for an afternoon. [FYI: Not an effective way to keep a plaster cast dry; my mom was greeted by the orthopedic surgeon on a follow up visit with a curt “What bubblehead let this girl go swimming?”] I remember the camp director strolling through the cabins each morning strumming an autoharp singing “It’s Heaven o’clock and time to get up.” [I have despised the autoharp ever since that week.] I remember the stress of needing to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, being too scared to go to the bathhouse alone for fear of wild animals, and too embarrassed to wake the cabin counselor. I ended up tinkling just outside the cabin door; a truly humiliating experience all around. I mention it because camp can be a place where we become persons who have to handle our own challenges and conflicts without the crutch of parents and routine. We learn some things about our vulnerabilities and abilities that we might not know if left in familiar places. This episode also reminds me that I carry that scared little girl inside me still; she helps me have compassion for myself, and compassion for all adults who have a squishy inner child inside their grown-up personalities.
The next camp of my heart was the Flathead Lake United Methodist camp in Western Montana. My siblings and I started attending youth camps and retreats there right away when we moved back to the home place in Montana—it was the camp our mom and grandma went to and helped build. Their place became our place in turn. My United Methodist pastor brother Steve is now the site manager at our Flathead Lake camp, which delights all of us to no end, especially my brother, who experienced his call to ministry at that very place when he was in high school.
My memories of the camps and retreats I attended there are less fragmentary, more like a kaleidoscope of images and feelings tumbling around when I bring that place to mind or visit it again. Youth camps form a container for a bubbling stew of boundless energy, hormones, creativity, insight, emotion, devotion, and drama. There’s really nothing quite like throwing a group of kids from different places together in a beautiful home away from home and nurturing a spiritual community. Romances flourish and die, hearts soar and break, lifelong friendships are formed and revived as kids come back in successive years. The music and the spiritual teaching plant seeds of faith that take root and bear fruit even decades later. Adult mentors provide living proof that one can survive the storms of adolescence with a sense of humor intact. I am still in touch with a couple of my camp counselors who had a part in forming the person I am today—what a joy!
The main gift I received from going to camp during those teenage years was a place and a community where I felt free to be myself, and where my self was completely affirmed. I came from a loving family, and participated in a kindly little church, so my life was certainly not bereft of love and affirmation. Even so, being a teenager is tough. I was shy and unathletic, close to the bottom of the social order at my high school, not hated but not popular. You know, like most kids–but we all take it pretty hard, right? I still freak out a little when I have to carry a lunch tray into a crowded dining room to find a place to sit where I will be welcomed—leftover teen trauma. When I went to camp, I could leave my social caste and all the attached peer judgments behind like so much heavy baggage. At camp I found adult counselors who gave all the kids unconditional positive regard to the best of their ability. And I found friends who could get acquainted with the real me as we opened our hearts to each other. I found people who were genuinely glad to see me, who missed me between camps and wrote me long letters (those were the days!), who embraced me literally and figuratively. I have a snapshot memory of sitting on a cabin balcony during one retreat surrounded by my best friends while someone played a sappy song by the band Bread in the background, smelling woodsmoke, seeing the light glint off the lake outside, just feeling absolutely loved and thinking the universe was a perfectly perfect place. This, friends, is a Pearl of Great Price at any age, but especially in the tumultuous years of finding one’s own self. To find one’s own self loveable is precious. To have a place that provides the conditions for such a realization is priceless.
I absorbed a lot of the wisdom of Christian faith at camp as well. We had a fantastic legacy of music that carried the faith inside us as we sang together at intervals all day long. We had some terrific teachers; I still hear George Harper’s voice in my head when I stop to think about the Lord’s Prayer, which was his teaching topic one summer. And living in an intensive Christian community was—off and on—a course in faith all by itself. Sometimes the community failed to be inclusive and affirming, but more often it succeeded. It gave us a vision of what depth was possible in human relationships.
John and I had a long season in the 80’s and 90’s of staffing youth camps, both junior high and high school; I think both of us were trying to repay the universe for what our camp directors and counselors gave us in those tender years we spent going to youth camps. We had some great times, and some very stressful and exhausting moments as well, bearing the burden of responsibility for creating a safe and affirming Christian community for young people. I think we got into Family Camp at the right time when we had our own little kids, and when we had a little less energy to go beating the bushes for escaped amorous teens at night.
We’ve participated in Family Camp at N-Sid-Sen for 25ish (?) years, directing for many of those years, and volunteering on staff as teachers and music leaders for others. I really look forward to it; I thank you for agreeing to put a week of outdoor ministry into my contract when I came here so I can offer some of my time to the wider church. I have come to think of Family Camp as my other congregation, to some degree, my other faith community at my home away from home. Since only a few of you have been in both of my faith communities, let me tell you a little about why I treasure time at N-Sid-Sen so much. (Our Port Orchard camp Pilgrim Firs, too, but it doesn’t quite have the claim on my heart that N-Sid-Sen does).
The “sanctuary” of NSS is 230 acres of woodlands with a full mile of lakeshore on Lake Coeur d’Alene. It is a most beautiful sanctuary with its lakeshore, acres of trees, meadows and wetland. There is room to be alone and space to be together. You can hear intermittent highway and motor boat traffic, but it is often a quiet place. The cell phone and internet connections are spotty and slow, so your electronic devices just have to take a break and give you, the human operators, a much needed break from their constant nagging and beeping. There’s no TV, no newspapers; news addicts have to put their outrage on the back burner.
You drive up on a sunny summer day and open your car door and breathe in the perfume of hot pine trees—aaaahhh! You hear the sound of the little bird that hoots, and maybe startle a deer in the meadow as you slam your car door. You relish the hushed sound of wind in trees and of waves lapping on rocks as you make your way to a cabin. And the place immediately begins to work its healing magic.
I chose the 23rd psalm as a reading for today because the feeling it evokes in the verses about being led by still waters and into green pastures captures something of going to a lovely camp like NSS. It’s not just that it’s a beautiful place; it’s a place that is a gift of God, and a gift of faithful God-lovers who had the vision and foresight to set aside this place for the use of generations of campers. It’s a beautiful place hallowed by sacred intentions. It’s a place to come and remember that God is our shepherd, our loving Creator. Our family was in a position to help finance the construction of one of the newer buildings at NSS a few years back, and we were given the privilege of naming it. We called it “Stillwater” because of that feeling of being safe and cared for Psalm 23 hints at. The name “Stillwater” refers to the lake, of course, but even more it refers to a place of stillness within and joy overflowing after being refreshed there.
I chose the other text, the reading from 1 Peter about being built up into a spiritual house, because it speaks to the other side of the genius that is camp. The assembly of folks coming from hither and yon—who were not a people, a unit, before camp began—become a people, God’s own people in that time and place. You see, there is more than one way to be a faith community. There’s the way of being like our church, a stable place for a congregation to gather and welcome seekers that evolves over decades or centuries. Then there’s the kind of pop-up faith community that forms at camp. It’s going to come and go in the space of a week, but what happens within that just-add-water instant faith community can be every bit as powerful and life-changing as what occurs in a longer-lived faith community. It’s just concentrated in a smaller space of time and accelerated by a lot of time spent worshiping, learning, singing, eating, laughing, playing, and talking together while away from usual distractions. There’s a great deal of face time, with faces that look at you as if you’re a person of infinite worth–which you are, but sometimes you forget.
There’s a good deal of variety of interest in faith formation at camp; some folks are there to enjoy family, recreational opportunities and the splendid place and don’t participate much in worship and study or a spiritual quest. But for those who are interested in spiritual growth, there is a great opportunity to talk with fellow campers about things that matter both inside group gatherings and in smaller assemblies on the beach or on the late-night porch. Last summer, for instance, I recall one hearty after-dark-with-a-glass-of-wine theological conversation on whether it’s appropriate to use the word “evil” when talking about political opponents. I recall one year seeing a small group talking intensely about healing after our official study time was over, a group that ended in tearful embraces, prayer, and anointing. I’ve had many a thought-provoking chat about what’s going right and what’s going wrong in the mainline Christian church. And many, many private conversations about personal struggles and relationships in this setting that provokes trust. Camp is a place where human beings have time to talk. Some of the talk is just jabber, but some of it is truly sacred.
Camp is a place where we have time for prayer and praise, where God calls us into marvelous light over and over. Some of those prayerful moments are private—I recall one such watching the sun come up and bring all the colors of the meadow to life. Other holy moments are congregational. There are matchless moments of group AWE in such a beautiful place. One year at senior high camp a moon rose that was so fascinating we all left what we were doing and tramped out to the meadow to watch it for a while. This whole normally chatty group of 40 or so kids absolutely fell under its spell and were silent for 15 or more minutes. Wow! Our family camp has been lifted as a whole group so many times. Once I remember looking at a lovely sunset while singing at the campfire and quieting our singing long enough to watch an osprey diving into the cove several times trying to catch a late dinner—it was just a feeling of breathless gratitude for the beauty before us. And then there are the many times we become truly one while we sing together, whether it’s a sacred song or a silly one. The music is magic, especially with the sounds of the lake as gentle percussion.
The first evening of every camp the site manager comes out to go over a few rules and, more importantly, to welcome the campers. Mark Boyd always makes it a point to say, “This is YOUR place on the lake.” I want to say that to all of you as well, whether or not you have ever gone or will ever go to one of our conference camps. N-Sid-Sen and Pilgrim Firs are your place. I am grateful for all the folks over the years who have recognized the value of the church having such a place to gather, to provide hospitality and welcome in a place apart. A lot of camps have been closed and sold in recent years as conferences with tight budgets decide they can’t afford to keep them anymore, which is terribly sad. I hope that our Pacific Northwest conference continues to view our camps as a priceless resource for not just UCCers but the many other groups that use these exceptional properties.
We need places apart to revel in creation, to get together, celebrate life, create community, eat oatmeal, sing until our voices rasp and laugh until our bellies hurt. Sabbath places. Eugene Peterson describes the value of a Sabbath as “uncluttered time and space to distance ourselves from the frenzy of our own activities so we can see what God has been and is doing.” Camp provides a Sabbath place to get a little perspective on our lives, to find ourselves again, to find God again, to renew our strength. To find the child of wonder, child of vision we lost along the way…Thank God for those places, places on the planet.