Tales from Jesus Camp
After a difficult (to understate it) evening of parenting last night, my oldest is off to Camp Henry in the beautiful mountains of Canton, NC. This is his third year at camp, his second year doing a full week of sleep-away camp. He is thrilled. Camp Henry is Episcopalian, we are UCC, but it's good for a PK (pastor's kid) to experience another denomination. After his first time at Camp Henry he told me, "they do communion all wrong, mom...they use the wrong words." This offered an opportunity to explain communion in a little more detail and the freedom to use different words and expansive language for God.
Sleep-away summer camp was a profound part of my spiritual experiences as a kid. When I became older, however, I looked back and felt angry about what I considered to be spiritual manipulation as the camp I attended was evangelical with a huge focus on "getting saved," and a salvation day (it wasn't called that but every evening's campfire was a build up to the night when there was somewhat of an altar call inviting kids to "get saved.") It wasn't until many years later that I was able to disentangle the very real experience of manipulation (however well intended) from the equally real experiences of the divine that I had in that place. It's complex. I would not send my child to an evangelical summer camp that's focused on the goal of saving his soul. His soul is actually pretty sweet and open and beautiful. It's both broken and blessed, as is the human condition. However, I do want his camp week to include spiritual experiences out in God's wide world, close to the earth, outside the walls of the church, out from under the influence of his pastor-mom and our family church. I want him to experience the wonder and love of the divine with his peers and through his body delighting in the many activities of camp, and alongside a kind-hearted counselor there to offer guidance and reflect the heart of God to the best of their abilities. I want him to break bread and experience communion in the beauty of a place that brims with excitement and adventure. I want God to be real for him in that place.
For any of us who grew up proximate to a religion that cajoled, coerced, threatened hellfire and brimstone, or in any way patronized the real spiritual curiosity and inner wisdom of our childhood selves, the spiritual formation of our kids is complex. We are constantly working against our reactivity to a religion that failed to rise above manipulation and exclusion, that employed fear as a tool to make us believe things that, frankly, we found untenable even as children. We were told that religion is about intellectual consent to outdated creeds and preposterous dogma. And we refuse to subject our kids to this kind of bad religion.
As a result, however, we sometimes fail to take seriously the spiritual formation of our kids and our influence as parents. We focus on their creative expressions, we affirm their academic or athletic adventures, we work hard to provide healthy food for their bodies and good programming for their minds. In the name of open-mindedness we opt not to intentionally invest in spaces that develop their spiritual and/or ethical selves, thinking when the time is right they will decide for themselves. Too often we fail to give them a "mother tongue" fluent in the language of Spirit, with the accompanying seasons, festivals, holy days, music, stories, and scriptures to go with it.
As Marcus Borg said, believing (linguistically speaking) comes from the same root word as beloving. It is not about any one set of beliefs, but rather what we choose to give our hearts to, the commitments we make about how to live our lives. This is the kind of spiritual formation I want for my kids and that I worked hard to establish as the foundation of our kids' spiritual formation program at Land of the Sky UCC. It is a robust formation that takes seriously a child's inner wisdom, love of stories, and innate sense of the holy. From my perspective, a healthy religious formation for our kids also must affirm the wisdom of other religious traditions rather than casting them as inherently wrong-headed, hell-bound, or evil. It also must be honest about the systemic shortcomings, brokenness and failures of religious traditions.
My prayer for my child this week is that he is drawn more deeply by God into the tradition of his ancestors, which is also the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa and Wangari Maathai and Desmond Tutu and John Lewis, people who changed the world by walking in the ways of Jesus, not over and against other religions, but alongside them.
After more than a decade of having the privilege to do spiritual formation with kids and teens, I invite all parents to consider: how does your child define the holy, "God," capital-L Love, the thing which is greater than them, but to which they belong? Where are the spaces that they draw near, in wonder and curiosity, in wild praise of beauty and delight felt through their bodies, to the divine? What is one thing you can do this summer to cultivate their innate spiritual wisdom and catapult their ethical formation? What's a conversation you'd like to have for which you will look for an opening to present itself? And how might you model intentional investment in your own spiritual growth? (I had several adults at Land of the Sky tell me that they began coming for their child and one or three or five years in, they realized how deeply hungry they were to come for themselves, how desperately in their lives they needed community and space to listen for the sound of the genuine in themselves.) How are you investing in and shaping a community that models both your values and ideas, but also allows your child space to engage ideas that differ from your own in the context of rigorous spiritual or ethical exploration? What question is your child asking about the holy in this season of their lives and how will you affirm their exploration of it?
Prayers of all kinds welcome for Myles as he embarks on a week of adventure and exploration.