Start children off on the way they should go,
and even when they are old they will not turn from it.
Proverbs 22:6 (NIV)
It won’t come as a surprise to anyone reading this post when I say that junior high and high school can be tough years. At that time in our lives there is so much to sort out about ourselves and our place in the world. We’re trying to fit in at the same time that we’re learning who we are. This was my experience, anyway. Like many teenagers, I felt “in” in some circles and so very “out” in others. It helps during this time if you can have people in your life who love and accept you no matter what. I had that sense of unconditional love from my family, and I was blessed to find that in my church friends, too.
Camp Celebration, as it was called back in the day, was one of my earliest experiences of UMYF (United Methodist Youth Fellowship). The same friend who’d invited me to join her at UMYF at her church suggested that I come to camp one summer. She talked about how going to camp would give me the chance to meet other like-minded kids from our California-Nevada Conference. I was still new to church and the concept of organized worship, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from church camp. I’d never slept away from home for more than a night, either. Even so, I signed up, listening to the small voice inside that was encouraging me to go. I trusted that since I would know my friend and a few others I’d met in UMYF, those friends plus the lakeside location pictured above would be enough to ensure a great trip. What I didn’t know at the time is that it would be so much more.
Church camp taught me that church doesn’t only happen inside a building. The new kids and counselors I met were accepting and welcoming, quickly going from strangers to friends. Some of them are still friends today. Yes, there were s’mores and games and a lot of fun moments that you’d expect at any camp. We also participated in multiple spiritual activities like singing hymns together praying together, and talking about faith. Camp taught me about daily devotions and the power of spending quiet time alone in nature. I choose the beach more often than the mountains these days, but nature is still one of the first places I go when I am feeling the need to be still and listen for what God is saying to me.
My church camp experience turned into an important building block for me. It introduced me to the concept of bringing faith practices into my daily life. I knew how to pray before going to camp but I don’t think I’d looked at faith development in such an active way before. More than 30 years later, prayer, study, fellowship and worship are spiritual habits that I can’t imagine being without. Good times and bad, alone or with others, I know I can count on these habits and my connection with God to get me through anything life brings my way. It is amazing how something you learn as a teenager can serve you well for a lifetime.
I will be going to a different kind of church “camp” experience this summer. I’ll join 40 soon-to-be new friends in faith this month on the Wesley Heritage Tour in England, led by Educational Opportunities. We will walk in John Wesley’s footsteps, learning more about his life as we reacquaint ourselves with the core elements of our Methodist faith tradition. We will worship together, pray together, and see some of the sights that played a role in the rise of Methodism. It is exciting to me that once again, just like decades ago, I will meet new friends who are committed to learning more about our faith. Something tells me we will have a great experience together, with or without s’mores.