Ethan Keller describes his time as a counselor at a Congregationalist camp, and the impact that had on his life.
Truly, a week at church camp is one of the most intellectually, physically, spiritually and emotionally draining experiences anyone can experience. The mere idea of “Jesus-camp” frightens kids and parents alike. Moreover, it can humble all counselors & staff. It can petrify any administrator or program director.
In my 5-year absence from camp, I endured divorce, and other pains. My father, who was a Franciscan monk and Catholic priest, just died this January. My brightest light in a dark tunnel has been my son, who turned 5 this May. When the Congregationalist camp director asked me to be a counselor, I immediately said “yes.” I love expanding young peoples faiths, but I also knew I would be receiving much needed respite. Kids are sometimes like sages & soothing soothsayers. Church camp brings to life a prayer of Jesus, that things can be “hidden from the wise & intelligent and revealed to little children.” (Matthew 11:25).
Here’s some background on me: I’ve been blessed to “do music fulltime,” more or less, for almost 20 years. My original compositions are my diaries of a crazy life, from struggles with drugs to the ecstasy of & letdowns of love interests. I’ve explored the melancholy of jail cells & heady self-inflicted solitudes. I write about the tranquility of traveling and celebrating connections between humans & communities. But I also deal with rejection and public humiliation. I’ve literally broken leg and arm bones at gigs, each in silly, stupid ways. I flail and fail spectacularly, and testify about mid-life crises on a microphone over melodies. In the worst ways I’ve become my own victim of theological pomposity, utter head-in-the-clouds oblivion, total detachment and existential boredom.
Sometimes I barely remain afloat, spiritually. When I’m not being a soloist wallflower, I still attempt to masquerade as the audacious rock star in bright lights, while simultaneously playing the inspiration for the church youth group (seriously, sometimes in the same tour). I do all of this in the memory that I live in both the shadows and lights cast by the cross of Christianity that I bear. It is a cross totally impossible for me to discard, even if I desired to.
I’m often in awe why people wish to hear me sing or speak, and often go simply where I’m invited and/or where hospitable people help me feel more “at home.” I often feel like a ridiculous “TV preacher” slash “game-show host.” My dad preached “revivals.” Hmm. So be it. Come on down! I just can’t guarantee anyone anything; I’m just as starving as that hungry church camp kid and my life is no shining example of anything yet. Most days, I do not feel like any sort of “beacon” for Christ.
Perhaps I’m an omen (or harbinger) for others. Perhaps like St. Paul, I lost my old identity, so now I try to be everything to everyone, and have no clue where I am going next until the path is illuminated. And when I get to the next destination, I still hold a door open for others. Then I can always say, “Welcome home.”
My dad once lived with The Venerable Solanus Casey of Detroit. Church leadership did not fully ordain Casey, so he became the doorman. Like Solanus Casey, or my father, or Jesus, or a young woman director of church camp, it is precisely that holding the door open for others that proves we’re all “aliens & sojourners, as were all our ancestors.” Transients who walk into your life, or wander onto ‘our’ land, should be welcomed because all “our days on earth are like a passing shadow — soon gone without a trace.” (1 Chronicles 29:15). Similar language is found in the Bible that ‘land’ is not ours, (Leviticus 25:23), depending on translation, using words like: aliens, strangers, sojourners, tenants, and yes, even ‘immigrants. ‘
My dad used to scoff at insensitive attitudes towards immigration prevalent among some Christians in the United States. I recall him saying, “We’re all immigrants,” on more than one occasion. Today those words seem to allude not so much to how our ancestors came to this land, but to a deeper, more forgiving, welcoming & compassionate attitude towards new arrivals.
Don’t you often feel “inexperienced” or feel like an “out-of-towner?” Worse yet, you feel like a local that doesn’t belong where you are? Perhaps worst yet, did you ever get that feeling like the community surrounding you doesn’t love you, and is happy to see you leave rather than embrace you? Would you isolate yourself?
One of the main rules at church camp is to make new campers feel welcome. We reassure children at church camp that they are unique, they are loved, and they are “not alone in feeling alone.” Then we try to affirm that an all-knowing, all-powerful & all-loving God is big enough to reach everyone. Personally, I must believe that; otherwise, a fundamental brick of my faith would be weak. “Have we not all one father?” (Malachai 2:10).
Diversity is beautiful and emblematic of God’s gorgeous thirst for variety. Indeed, in sacred stories of many cultures it’s eloquently purported that the Creator loves variety, and made humans diverse so we can come to know one another. Why do we as humans fear other cultures and write them off as “unwelcome strangers?”
We each can feel like that ignorant backwoods yokel, or oblivious suburban child, or hardened city-kid, each who grew up in his or her own sheltered corner of the world. Our experiences are original and priceless, but overall somewhat shallow in and of themselves, and we should try cutting each other some slack instead of cutting each other’s throats.
We didn’t talk about terrorism and children dying in Gaza at Jesus Camp. We were not exposed to news of ISIS crucifying folks in Mosul, destroying priceless artifacts & ancient communities. I only briefly mentioned my role in the fight against “mascotry,” most namely a sports team’s #HolocaustEmblem, still present in our nation’s capitol. How do I stand on a continent apparently so proud of its successful genocidal history and not call out domestic terrorists here as much as the international ones? And would I dare relay those heavy to implications to children in the context of Jesus promising His “burden is light?”
We’re all scared, restless travelers, sometimes vehemently guarding temporary shelters, and hoarding things we hold sacred. But God works thousands of miracles, often utilizing the most lowly & lost. And we are all “lost” in some sense. We’re all “wanderers.” We are all aliens.
Photo credit: Nathan/flickr