Text: Mark 6: 30-34, 45-46, 53-56 (Jesus retreats to quiet places)
Sermon delivered at Camp Woodboia for Chinook Presbytery's Camping Sunday service
When Wendy Allingham asked me lead the service today at the Camp, I thought that I would find a passage from Mark's Gospel in which Jesus retires to the wilderness to pray. My hope was that such a reading could inspire a reflection on camping. But when I turned to the Lectionary, I saw that today's Gospel selection was already one of those. In the passage we just heard, Jesus twice retreats from the crowds: once with his disciples to find a quiet place, and then later by himself to pray on a mountainside.
This coincidence is perhaps not too surprising given the number of times in Mark's Gospel that Jesus retreats from towns and crowds to pray in lonely places. Today, we find ourselves in one of those remote places, a United Church camp on the edge of the the tiny village of Wood Mountain and near one of least-tamed and most beautiful of Canada's National Parks, Grasslands National Park
This morning, I have a few words about my own experiences in United Church camps, which I hope will spark others' memories of such times and perhaps also inspire plans for future camping experiences at places like Woodboia. Near the end of this reflection, I will open up the floor for sharing around the circle . . .
I imagine that many of us here today are like me and have been strongly affected by church camping experiences. I have two stories to tell from my own experiences: one about a camp I attended when I was 10 years old, and another from a camping trip in 2002 when I was already in mid-life.
As a child, I only went to church camp once. I grew up in Cornwall Ontario, which is on the St. Lawrence River near the border with Quebec. When I was 10, my older brother and I spent a week in Rideau Hill Camp, which is on on the Rideau River about halfway between Ottawa and the St. Lawrence River.
Our experience was not entirely positive. It was an extremely hot week, and during a long hike on roads near the camp, my older brother was one of several campers to succumb to heat stroke. We also were bothered by bug bites, and we didn't love all the religious instruction we got that week.
My brother and I were preachers' kids. My late father, Rev. James Clare Kellogg, was then the minister at Knox United Church in Cornwall. And such, we were surprised when we seemed to be among the more liberal of the kids in the camp in terms of questions like Sabbath-observance and other moral questions.
Overall, I was pleased with the experience. I was proud that I had thrived physically in the heat, the games, and the swimming. In contrast, my older brother, who was my hero, had often withered. So I think that I allowed myself to feel a little pride at his expense.
Also, the experience of late-night conversations in the cabin with some of the older boys helped me feel more like a "guy among guys" than I had before.
Still, the family consensus was that this United Church camp was not for us, and I never returned.
More important to me was a week-long wilderness canoe trip with 18 adults 10 years ago this summer in Ontario's Algonquin Provincial Park. That canoe trip was organized by the United Church's Five Oaks Retreat Centre, which is the Ontario equivalent to Saskatchewan's Calling Lakes Centre near Fort Qu'Appelle.
10 years ago, I had recently returned to church after decades away, and my minister, Rev. Rivkah Unland of Toronto's Kingston Road United Church, had invited me to go on the canoe trip, one that she had found life-changing the summer before
I was quite nervous about going. I had been told that the canoeing and portaging were physically demanding, which made me worry about my bad back. I worried about my digestion, about heat, about bugs, about storms, and about being in community with 18 strangers for seven days and nights. But I also sensed that this camping experience was exactly what I needed, so off I went.
The Program Director of our week was Mardi Tindal. At the time, Mardi was a staff member at Five Oaks, while today she is the Moderator of the United Church. Mardi ends her three-year term as Moderator at the General Council meeting next month in Ottawa. I feel lucky that Mardi was one of the leaders on that experience. Her program for the week was based upon a book she had just published called "Soul-Maps: A Guide to the Mid-Life Spirit."
Mardi and I bonded on our very first portage. We had set out from our base camp on a windy lake on a Sunday morning and had paddled for about two hours to get to the other side. To make it from there to the next lake, where we were to camp that night, we had a one-kilometre portage through the woods.
When Mardi and I stopped to rest on our way back for the second load of canoes and packs to take
over the rocky and slippery trail, we agreed that we had never worked harder in our lives. Mardi, like me, was worried about her back and about the other physical rigours of camping. She also pointed out that having made the difficult paddle across the first lake and having lugged all our belongings and canoes to the next one, we were stuck. Even if we wanted to bail out on the rest of the week, we could not. The only way back to our starting point was to complete the rest of the circular course with our 16 other companions. A self-help expression came to mind: the only way out of this trip was through.
In the end, I loved almost every minute of the week, including rain, exhaustion, mosquitoes, swimming in the cold lakes, and snoring companions. The week helped solidify a new understanding of the word "faith," which I had encountered in some of the reading I was doing as a newly returned church member. This understanding sees faith not as belief in incredible things, but as trust: trust in our bodies despite their weaknesses; trust in the earth despite its indifference to us puny humans; trust in community despite the brokenness and pain that we all bring to our relationships; and trust in the God who is the ground of being, life, and love.
The week gave me a crash course in how the culture of the United Church had radically changed since I was a teenager. It seemed less moralistic, more welcoming, and more diverse than I had known as a child.
I was pleased that my back and digestion worked fine; that I felt physically stronger at the end of the week; and that I was able to relax in this instant community of strangers. I returned from the trip confident that I had made the right choice in rejoining the United Church and confident that my journey in the church with fellow broken pilgrims was the one I needed for the rest of my life.
I loved the sharing circles that Mardi led through our week. As we said goodbye, she warmly encouraged me to continue my engagement with the church. I believe that I owe her and the others on that trip a lot.
So there you have it, two stories of my United Church camp experiences.
Being at a camp or on a wilderness trip, I believe, can help remind us of some of more sacred truths: our interconnection with all of life; the importance of beauty; our physical and emotional dependence on others; and our smallness in the face of breadth of the earth, the depth and power of lakes and rivers, and the infinite shining heaven of starry nights. Camping can also help remind us of our greatest need, which is to give and receive love to fellow pilgrims on the journey.
Of course, time at camp does not always lead to such epiphanies; but I imagine that it often does. Deep friendships are forged, life-partnerships sometimes have their start, and new ways of searching for faith are often stumbled upon.
Well, those are some of my reflections for Camp Sunday. And now, I would like to open the floor to anyone else who wants to say a few words about their own camping experiences. Do you remember difficult nights of heat and bug bites that made you pine for home when you were at camp? Did you love camp as a kid? Did you find you future spouse at camp? Have you ever gone on a church camping trip as an adult, and if so, how did you like it? What would like to share?
The floor is now open . . .
Thank you all for contributing. I appreciated hearing of your experiences.
To close, I refer back to our Gospel reading today. At many points in his ministry, Jesus went to a mountainside or to a lonely, deserted place to pray. He used his time away from the crowds to regenerate, to reflect, and to reconnect with his source in the God of Love.
May we also find times of regeneration, reflection and reconnection in the wild beauty of God's earth; and times of faith formation with our brothers and sisters on the road as we camp, paddle, portage, and journey together as on Christ's path of faith, hope and love.