I just got home from a great week at Camp Friedenswald. I went to fill the role of camp pastor for the Junior High camp. When you combine all the promise, passion, and abilities of summer staff in their 20’s with the unbridled energy, humor, and budding insight of junior high youth a marvelous, carbonated spirit fills the camp. It’s like Red Cream Soda, a unique flavor that tickles the heart and fills the soul with laughter.
After a year without camp due to the pandemic, it is good to know the recipe hasn’t been lost. Camp can still brew up one of the best spiritual fizzy drinks I’ve ever tasted. Abigail did a wonderful job leading the worship, and the depth of musical talent on the staff is outstanding which made for a lot of inspiring singing. Junior High campers are care free on the exterior, and care ridden on the interior. At the evening campfire they posed hard questions like: “Why doesn’t God speak to us like in the Bible stories,” and “Why would God allow so much suffering?”
Junior High campers are beyond simple or glib answers to life’s biggest questions, and yet they are unsure how to bear the weight of a future they fear and cannot see. The summer staff create a safe space where campers can build meaningful relationships, and from such a foundation the campers begin to learn they can live the hard questions of faith.
I wish I could say my week at camp was all laughter and light. It wasn’t. At one of the evening campfires Abigail invited us all into a time of prayerful listening. In the silence my ear strained to hear a Wood Thrush’s song. Its familiar notes did not come to me on the wind. But I carry a precious, youthful memory in me of sitting in silence in Mosquito Hollow and being filled with the wonder of a Wood Thrush calling from Inspiration Point.
During the week, I walked the trails at camp longing to hear a Wood Thrush sing. I took a girl’s cabin on a birding hike, and played a recording on my phone of the Wood Thrush’s song. I said, “It sounds like a flute. It’s one of my favorite sounds at camp.” After playing the recording, one of the campers, who is learning to play the flute, said, “I think it sounds more like a piccolo.” I thought, “Oh, she’s right!” I asked the Junior High girls to help me listen as we walked. I was hoping with more ears listening, we might hear the Wood Thrush sing. The week ended. I never heard a Wood Thrush call.
Where are they? Will their presence in the Peaceful Woods one day be consigned to a distant memory? I know the Wood Thrush’s numbers are in decline. The Cornell Ornithology Lab lists the usual culprits for its declining numbers; habitat loss and a declining food source, snails and slugs on the forest floor. I know in my head why I am not hearing them singing from every corner of camp, but my heartaches all the same for them.
Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, published the year before I was born in 1962, warned that unless we changed our ways and ended our use of the pesticide DDT which was making its way into birds through the food chain, we would one day wake up to a silent spring void of birds’ songs. The book shocked the nation, and we responded in kind. The fact that I can say I’ve seen a Bald Eagle flying over Shavehead Lake is testimony to our past success at dealing with this environmental threat. But as I sat in silence in Mosquito Hollow prayerfully willing a Wood Thrush to sing no answer came. In that moment, I could not help but think of Rachel Carson’s warning from nearly sixty years ago. The silent spring, she feared may not be upon us yet, but I cannot help but fear it may one day be. The presence of the Wood Thrush’s absence was everywhere as I walked the trails at camp. I want to wake up from this dream and hear the Peaceful Woods filled with its call once again.
I have noticed over the past four years of our two sons’ Junior High education they have been fed a steady diet of dystopian literature. The homework assignments seem to affirm the prevailing wisdom that our institutions, nation, and world are spiraling in decline towards a darker future.
In contrast, when our youth come to camp, we invite them to embrace a narrative of hope. With all they are learning in school and seeing in the news that confirms a dystopic world view, they cannot help but feel the tensions this brings with a hopeful message that love, faith, fellowship, and peace can win a better day. We ask a lot of the resilience of our children, and yet as the week at camp progresses you can see this dystopic narrative fading from their eyes, and being replaced by a narrative of promise. As the campers embrace each other in laughter and song, supporting each other in play and worship, their spirits rise and they dare to will hope into the world.
I, however, being old, am having a harder time fighting this infection, the virus of dystopic wisdom replicating itself inside of me. My sorrow at not hearing a Wood Thrush at camp quickly turns into dread of a future, when campers will never hear a Wood Thrush in the Peaceful Woods. It was a great week at camp, but I lament the Wood Thrush’s song wasn’t there to color it. I know I need an infusion of the resilience of these Junior High campers if I am to will hope into the world.
I have lived long enough to know grief unnamed becomes an open grave in the heart.
I have lived long enough to know a lament cried out makes fertile ground for hope. I have lived long enough to know one cannot live without hope, and I have lived long enough to know none of this wisdom can be attained on one’s own. It takes relationships with others for this to happen.
I was surprised, heartened, and made more courageous during my week at camp seeing this wisdom being played out in the lives of Junior Highschool campers and summer staff together at Friedenswald. The carbonated spiritual drink camp brews is strong stuff, strong enough to make one drunk, drunk on Life. Drunk enough to hope.
The week ended with worship. We gathered on the lower flat, the chapel framing our view like a postcard from camp. Abigail led us in singing several songs. I thought about the Wood Thrush song I hadn’t heard as we sang. Then I remembered Patty Shelly. She was the first song leader I can recall from camp. I was eight years old. Patty sang a song about a child who had a loved pet beetle named Alexander. When she sang that song, I felt like Patty had somehow seen directly inside my heart and understood how much I loved all the beetles, snakes, turtles, and birds I was seeing and experiencing at camp.
When I came back to the present, I could see Abigail, like Patty, was singing directly into the hearts of the campers all around me. Campers were standing shoulder to shoulder, arms linking them together. Facemasks, a residual effect of the pandemic hid their mouths, but I could see the smile in their eyes as they sang out together. They all knew they were leaving camp, and they all knew they were taking something special away with them in their hearts.
As campers said their final farewells, relishing new friendship made, and old friendships strengthened, one of the Junior High campers who understood something of the significance of the week came up to me and said, “It’s all about relationship.” I cry as I write these words. He’s so young, so wise, and so right. I hope and pray he and every camper who came to Junior High Camp will live relationship-rich-lives. I pray they’ll come back next year, and if they hear one, just one Wood Thrush singing then all my prayers from this past week will have been answered.