In the summer I always try to go to one of the Church of God youth camps. I’ve been a camper and a staff member at a variety of the camps since I was about 13. Thinking back on those experiences, they seem sometimes like dreams, where my emotions and the vividness of certain moments in my memory are weirdly strong, almost overwhelming. I experienced many turning points during these camps, and thus those memories have stayed vibrant in my mind’s eye.
I have been thinking a lot recently about change, and the difficulty of it, and often when I think of change, I think of camp. I remember one year at a camp in Pennsylvania that my twin sister and I attended, and we didn’t know anyone except each other. We were assigned to different dorms so I often didn’t know where she was, and I can still picture the first night sitting with a group of kids I didn’t know, feeling uncomfortable and not knowing what to say. And just as clearly I can picture a night four or five days later sitting with those same people, and others, and feeling like I could just not stop laughing or talking, feeling like I had known those friends for years. This was a rather outward change, but there were many more inward transformations as well.
Without those experiences, I would truly be a different person. Feeling accepted, protected, and valued helped me develop a confidence and a desire for relationships that I surely would have otherwise lacked.
The reason why all this is possible, I theorize, is due to the boundaries put in place around camp and its functions. The rules and the structure of camp create an atmosphere that is different from the day-to-day lives of its participants. And I think this actually produces the feelings of peace, closeness, and acceptance that are so much a part of what camp is.
For example: T-shirts are given to every camper as they arrive, and for most of camp everyone is expected to wear those shirts. I remember as a camper that although the shirts were always too big, I felt more relaxed and less worried when I didn’t have to think about what to wear. I didn’t have to compete with other girls, and I felt included as part of the group just with this small thing.
Another: Camp rules require that every camper participate in every activity (unless there is a true medical exception). Campers often don’t want to participate in certain activities that are more challenging, and don’t see the point in trying if it’s not fun or they are sure they will fail. But through this rule, instead of the purpose of the activities being to determine how good each camper is at a certain sport or game, it changes to each how positive each camper’s attitude is and developing their effort and willingness to try.
Some feel all the rules smother personal identity, restrict freedoms, or are an effort simply at conformity. But I argue that through them we have the opportunity to focus on showing our individuality through personality and skills and character, without having to worry as much about outward appearances or being distracted by our physical and financial differences. At camp I feel much more free than in normal life to be myself, to share my thoughts and feelings. And I think that’s because with all the rules there are fewer distractions, which ultimately allows for the most growth, the most change.
In this past summer’s camp in Oregon, the staff talked about the importance of being fully committed. In every aspect of camp and our roles within it, we were encouraged to be enthusiastic and eager. Even if a rule or expectation proved to be inconvenient, or seemed unnecessary, we were expected to go through with it, and to be an example to the campers watching us. What the leaders didn’t want was a luke-warm type of involvement, being there for the fun but distant, lethargic, or sarcastic about the tougher or more mundane aspects. If we believe and agree with the vision of those leading and organizing camp, and if we are convinced that they want the best for us and the campers, then we agree and are expected to submit to the rules as well.
Of course, the humanness of our week-long efforts at camp means that not every rule is perfect, or perfectly enforced, or even fair or necessary. And these mistakes often side-track those involved. It’s easy to use the less-than-perfect efforts of others as justification for our own lack of commitment. And I don’t mean blindly following without question. But if we agree to a certain cause, because we believe in the vision and the way to get there, then being half-hearted in our service because we are skeptical about certain details merely slows things down.
This discussion about total commitment is, I believe, crucially comparable to our more general spiritual lives. God has a set of rules He gave us. We may not always understand why a certain rule is in place, or why we should have to follow it. But if we believe God, then those doubts and questions are somewhat irrelevant, and only tend to get in the way of our ability to serve. And just as at camp, where we are rewarded for our obedience through the unique atmosphere in which we get to partake, in our lives God rewards our unfailing obedience through a whole existence that is closer to His ideal, what He had in mind for His creation from the beginning.
Being fully committed to the goals of camp, being all in for this striving towards a shared vision, even while understanding it will not be accomplished at this year’s camp or any year to come, I think, is the main thing. And in our more general spiritual lives this holds true as well. We are to be fully committed to God’s church and the efforts of its members, knowing that none of us is perfect and that we will at times get in each other’s way, but also knowing that we can do together what is impossible to do apart, and that putting aside personal preferences and opinions can at times allow the greater goal to be more quickly accomplished.
I think my generation has a distaste for being part of the masses, the crowd. We each want to stand out, to show our unique and individual selves to the world and be valued for what only each in turn can offer. We have a very distinct sense of identity, and anything that makes us feel like we’re being herded, overlooked, or generalized is something to be avoided. I think there are many things to value about this kind of life outlook. We have a strong desire to change and improve things, we constantly evaluate our circumstances and are always on alert for anything hypocritical or insincere. Because of this we are able to use our individual strengths and offer suggestions and we want to continually transition into more responsibility.
But perhaps we miss out if we are always on the move to something bigger and better. Perhaps there is a time for being a follower, a supporter, an anonymous and unvoiced contributor. Not a blind follower, or an unthinking machine, but a humble sheep who believes the best in others whenever possible, who understands she may not always see the best way, or have the clearest view of the big picture. If there is a time to analyze, to criticize, then there is also a time to praise and uplift and offer thanks. I think the ideal is a balance between these two sides, a balance very difficult to find. But maybe if we are willing to follow the rules, to fully commit, we can start to make a different kind of contribution and start to truly change.