My first experiences with church camps as a priest were less than joyful. Being tossed into a particularly hostile church camp environment in my first years of ministry did not make me want to serve at summer church camp ever again. Ever. And I was very clear to God about this.
As usual, God listens to me, nods, and continues on with Her plans.
Which, of course, found me a decade later in a new diocese with a church camp and a need for ordained people to serve in said camps. I had horrible flashbacks, whined a fair amount, and finally said, "Yes." This past week I served as one of the chaplains at the Senior High Conference at the Domain, our camp on 800 acres of mountains in eastern Kentucky.
And I loved the time I spent with the high schoolers, the clergy, the staff, and all who were involved in our time together. Camp has now ended. I have resumed a quasi-regular sleep schedule, and my days don't include morning and evening prayer and dropping off the edge of a cliff rappelling and eating more processed carbohydrates than any human being should consume in one week.
I learned that God always has ways of redeeming events in life. I'm glad I gave camp another chance. As usual, I learned more than I taught. Life just seems to be that way. So I share a few things I learned up on the Mountain with you.
1. Never discount the sheer power of sitting on a back porch, afternoon after afternoon, as a most important part of ministry. Most humans have to figure out you won't bite before sharing how their heart may be breaking. So just sit, say nice things, and see who shows up to tell you their story. And when they tell you their story, listen simply to listen.
2. Teenagers can sniff out inauthenticity like my dog can sniff out steak. They are not impressed by how much Greek you know or what kind of car you drive. Own your nerdery and they might decide you are okay. Even better, love your own brokenness and your soul will have something to share with their own cracks.
3. They, like all of us, are fighting a hard battle. My heart broke over and over again listening to their struggles, especially their struggles about disappointing their parents. I pray that more parents stop shoving their expectations onto their children. Your grown-up wounds are yours; not theirs. Stop trying to heal yourself through them and get a therapist.
4. "It gets better," is not a particularly helpful response to anyone's problem. Yes, most of the time, life does get better, but we don't know that for sure. My experience is that idiots and bullies in high school usually grow up to become big idiots and bullies who do even more damage in the grown-up world. I also know that as we grow, we don't have to be friends or work with people who hurt us and we get better at distancing ourselves from people who bring pain into our lives.
5. We all need to be reminded that we are God's beloved, just as we are.
6. Teenage boys enjoy talking about bodily functions all the time, but over meals seems a particularly prime opportunity. They also can't use enough Axe body spray. I think my lungs are permanently scarred.
7. Their oldies music is what most of us listened to in high school. Which means, yes, we are old.
8. Harmful amounts of DEET in bug spray is preferable to mosquito bites. That's my call, anyway.
9. I can now identify bat poo. I have no idea how this will come in handy in my future, but I have faith that it will.
10. Holding hands with those who are crying and simply sitting in the holy silence is the hardest part of prayer. And it's also likely the most helpful prayer. So don't be afraid to shut up and let God's spirit fill the moment.