Most blog posts around this time of year focus on New Year’s resolutions. I could follow suit and tell you about how I’m going to lose 20 pounds, or how I’ve decided to never again buy a plastic bottle of water no matter how thirsty I am, or how I am committed to a new regimen of taking a good multi-vitamin each day. But, I won’t, because even though I do plan on doing those things, I realize the limited appeal that hearing about them probably holds for you. (Really, though, we all should boycott plastic water bottles, plastic grocery bags, and as many other harmful plastic items as we can. Use aluminum bottles and carry your own bags to the store; small actions make a difference.)
Instead, I want to write this morning about camping.
Now, if you hate camping, don’t scroll away. It’s a metaphor for something bigger that is universal: change. (We all manage change, don’t we?)
I went on my first camping trip when I was a teenager. Before that, my family traveled to a lake house every summer where we got to enjoy the out-of-doors but ended up at night in our own beds, in a house, under a roof, relatively mosquito-free.
My first camping trip was during junior high school. My older sister wanted a companion to spend the night with her out in the woods not far from our house and I enthusiastically agreed, always happy to be invited to spend time with my sister who, three years older than I, owned her own golden retriever, played a wooden flute and had even received her own mantra from a Maharishi at a meditation workshop. Twice a day, my sister and her twin disappeared into their bedroom to hum their mantras and meditate. It was so cool to my 13- year old self. And so, when I was asked to join her on a camping trip, I jumped at it.
We strapped on two very full back packs and made our way down our street, past the private girl’s school that we lived next to, up the hill past the church, and down a long driveway to an art museum that sat at the top of the hill in our town on an estate that occupied at least 100 acres. (Since the time of this trip in the early 70s the art museum has carved up those acres and put in hiking trails and a nature trail, and the highway has encroached, as well. The thought of camping there today is hilarious.) We set up a shaky canvas tent, my sister laid out all of her cool gear- her journal, Kalhil Gibran’s The Prophet, her flute- and we cooked up a dinner (I don’t remember a fire, we were camping under the radar on private land, after all) and then we went to sleep. I remember waking in the morning to the sound of my sister playing the flute and the feel of the morning’s dew seeping through the wall of the tent when I pressed my hand against it. The air was cold and sweet, there was a strange, new feeling of being slightly untethered that was exhilarating, and, all at once, I was in love with camping. In love.
It was another thirty years or so before I went camping again. Yes, thirty years. Things intervened to keep me away- college, jobs, summers in restaurant kitchens, a move to the city, and the lack of resources to buy camping equipment. Tents had changed from canvas to nylon; propane cookstoves and lanterns and nylon mummy bags and hammocks- they all cost a lot, and I always found other ways to spend my money. My early experience with my sister remained a happy memory- for 30 years.
When I did return to camping, it was with my husband and niece at the invitation of my brother and his family to spend a few days on an island in Maine. I loved it. Being out-of-doors, listening to the waves lapping on the shore, the crows calling in the early morning, the waft of wood smoke from the campfire, the smell of pine and the taste of hot coffee in the tent at dawn. I loved hiking in the woods on the soft emerald moss, stretching out on the big, sunbaked rocks at the water’s edge, and swimming in the icy, briny sea. But what I really loved- and still love- about camping was the adaptive challenge. Not the challenge to master the environment (hardly!) but the challenge to allow the environment to work on me, to call me into a place of vulnerability and then to invite me to work in it, with it, to make my way.
There is so much equipment that you can take on a camping trip. One of my favorite things to do when I camp in Maine is to walk around the island and see, from a distance, how others set up their camps. Some people might be better off staying at home: they pack tents with doublebed-sized cots; erect eating shelters, portable changing rooms, and portable toilets in enclosures; hook up battery powered video games and stereos; and tie tarps up in the boughs of the trees over their campsites to funnel the rain away. Now, while I prefer a dry campsite, I actually like the challenge of working with nature to live in nature for a few days, and to embrace the change that this requires of me. I don’t want to conquer the out-of-doors, as much as I want to be a part of it. And that requires change, a willingness to do things differently, a fundamental understanding that camping-life is different than living-at-home-life and that we honor our Creation (and our Creator) by respectfully joining that life on its own terms, accepting the change that it requires when we step onto the camp site.
Some change, like the choice of camping, is voluntary. I choose to go to the woods. (These last couple of years, I’ve gone solo-camping and have made it as much of a spiritual retreat as a camping trip; a “two-fer”).
Other change comes when we don’t want it. Change can be required of us when circumstances that are out of our control shift and evolve. This is the kind of change that we can resist (spending our energy working against it, trying to preserve the old ways against all odds) or it is the kind of change that we can embrace (respectfully joining that new life on its own terms and understanding that the way that we must act is different.) It is the latter that I choose, and that I see us being called to in the Church today. Our role is not to try to stem the tide against change, but to receive change with grace, being vulnerable to the shift that it requires of us, and finding ways to move and be effective within the new structures.
There are so many “solutions” for what ails the Church today: work harder at evangelism (yes, but to the end of bringing more people into relationship with Jesus), bend ourselves over backwards to appeal to younger people, tighten up our discipline because we’ve heard that people like to be challenged in practicing their faith. Get out into the neighborhood, since the neighbors aren’t coming to us anymore. Get a screen to project hymn texts. Print text inclusive worship bulletins. Get back into the Prayer Book. And on and on and on. All of these ideas have some merit, but they also cast a frantic shadow of pushing hard against the tide of change.
I’d rather continue to focus on gathering people together each week in an inclusive and hospitable environment that studies the Word of God, celebrates the sacraments and strengthens us to do the work that God has set before us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless. Some of the characteristics of our current socio-religious culture will require us to be adaptive in how we meet the challenges of these (new) times, but that will not change the mission of the Church- of joining to worship God and serve our neighbors.
I can’t wait to return, next summer, to the wilds and I can hear already, the clicking of my tent poles against each other to create a frame for my shelter. I can smell the cornbread frying in sweet butter in the cast iron pan over the campfire, see the riotous scarlet-orange sunset, and hear the gulls laughing. It may rain- and I’ll get wet, or get smart, and crawl into my hammock under the big eaves of the leafy elm. I’ll let Nature offer me what she has- and respond, faithfully and with love.
How does the challenge to adapt and change work in you?