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August 2012

Why I Can't Hate Camp

I never liked camp.  No.  Really, I hated it.  My daughter loves it.  She was there just a week ago, sweltering away in the heat, loving it.  Laying in bed with the fans running, the cicadas' crescendo rising and falling, wind whistling through screens.  She had a great time.

But I never liked it.  First there was the fact that camp was nothing like. . . well, like home.  In fact, that's just it: I wanted to be at home.  My nights were filled with what seemed like endless hours of waiting for sleep to come, or waking and not being able to sleep, counting sheep, sheets sticking to me, feeling things crawling on me.  I knew the sounds of sleep --- a moan here, a sigh there, the faintest signs of the great snores to come later in life.  I heard it all.  I credit this whole experience with the mild insomnia I still enjoy.

One night we slept out under the stars.  Only I didn't sleep.  I lay wake and watched the stars and missed home.  Tiring of sheep, I named cigarette brands, TV shows, and went through the family tree and named all the cousins and aunts and uncles and various other once-removeds.  I got up and walked around in the dark, circled my camp-mates. Even today, I'm still making lists, still getting up, circling.

Mostly, I spent those wakeful nights trying to figure out how I could get home.  There was a telephone in the camp office, but you were not allowed to use it, and the office was locked.  I could walk out, of course, but I had no idea where I was or how to actually get home.  I could feign sickness, but I never could fake anyone out about anything.  But still, I plotted.  I didn't cry.  At least there's that.

I wrote a few earnest letters of appeal home, something like "FREE ME" or "COME SOON," but no one came.

There were moments of distraction from my misery, when, for a few moments, I forgot about home.  

We buried a live turtle, and then dug him up, guilt overcoming some of us.

We had a scavenger's hunt in the pouring rain, searching for five live red ants.  We lost.

We were supposed to build a lean-to but were slackers.  Our counselor gave up on us, even said a few unChristian words (we'd heard them before).  We were ungrateful tweens.

The last night we gathered at the lake and sang Kum-Ba-Yah and other classic camp songs, only then they weren't classic because they hadn't lived long enough.  Well, neither had we.

The sixth day, they came for me.  The seventh day, I rested, at home.  And I hoped I never had to go back.

All this ancient history would be incomprehensible to my daughter.  She's a normal kid.  She loves camp, swims, hikes, does crafts, meets lots of people because for goodness sakes she's a flippin' extrovert in a house of introverts.  Incomprehensible!  She wrote a letter saying all the things she did in one day, and after reading it I felt like I had to lie down I was so tired thinking about it, all that in the nearly 100 degree heat of Missouri, spelunking, swimming across the lake, carrying a big cross for a mile, and so on and so on in some kind of super-girl olympic camp.

But then my non-letter writing daughter wrote us five long letters, a most amazing gift, and in one, said this: "Guess what??? I dedicated my life to God."  And that took me by surprise.  That really did.  Like all of us, she is a long project, and yet it is very good to be looking at the same map to life, finding our way (or better, being led) together.

So, did I say I love camp?  I do.  In the best of them, those sweltering, stinky, uncomfortable cabins and uncivilized environs are God-haunted and Spirit-worked.  And you may just come Home there.



Starving Phantoms

“I think I have been learning about faith as long as I have lived in fear. Maybe longer. Whenever I am afraid, it is because I am also believing in something unseen, and like faith, it too requires an agile imagination. Both seem to have a way of growing bigger depending on how much attention we give them although one seems fed by truth and goodness while the other is fanned by worry and dreaded ‘what ifs.’”

(Jo Kadlecek, in Fear: A Spiritual Navigation)

My 89-year old aunt has been seeing things, we think.  First, there were the boys walking around on her roof and whispering under her window at night.  Never mind that she hears poorly, too deaf to notice feet padding around on shingles, shushed voices plotting on the exterior.  Never mind that its been over 100 degrees on the roof, a literal "hell" of a playground for adolescents.  Then there were gypsies in the trees, a girl with a bandanna, weeping.  And now, "wharf" rats slinking through her side yard, "big as a cat."

When I tell her that no one else has seen such things, that maybe it is her imagination, she can only say "Well, I'm not crazy."  After a couple phone calls at 3:00 AM and 26 calls to 911 in a month and a half, I am not sure about that.  Yet, thankfully, things have died down.  There are no more emergency calls, as she has concluded that the police are incompetent.  She stopped bothering the good neighbors, as "those people" think she needs to be "evaluated."  Yet for all her bellicosity, I think she is just afraid.  Phantoms have come to roost in her mind.

I doubt that anyone lives life without at least one fear, without some episode of fear.  Whatever their focus -- death, penury, or a nameless anxiety --- every fear seeks to occupy our every waking moment, fill even our dreams.  Dwelled upon, they grow, hulking over our day, a shadow over every move.  In its worst case, as with my aunt, the fear actually takes shape, becomes a visible, audible phantom that haunts, that preoccupies and lives on the edge of consciousness, waiting for nightfall to manifest itself.

Better let Christ be the one who haunts.  Jesus says that "perfect love casts out fear."  The only antidote for fear is a steely focus on Jesus.  As the Louvin Brothers concluded on their classic song, "Weapon of Prayer," --- "Still the helpful hand above, on the weapon made of love/And against him none on earth prevail."  You cannot fight fear dead on or banish it with words.  We fight it with Word and prayer, by going to the one who has already won.

I have been ravaged by fear before.  In fact, I don't have to think long to find something worth fearing.  Oddly enough, on occasion I have felt a sharp pang of fear on behalf of civilization itself, that everything that mostly functions will suddenly collapse, that we will drown in debt, that a hate-mongering ayatollah will unleash a dirty bomb on us, that the ice caps will melt and our great cities drown.  Possible, yes, but irrational, a seed planted by the sower of fear, the destroyer of all that is good, true, and beautiful.

Word and prayer.  A focus on Jesus.  But there is one other thing: a remembrance of His faithfulness in life events, a going back to the memorials we set up in memory for when God delivered us from some peril of body or mind, for when in His good providence He allowed suffering and yet drew us to Himself and delivered us in the midst of it.  The Psalmist repeatedly remembered God's past faithfulness as an assurance of His faithfulness to come.  So too should we.  As Jo Kadlecek says, "[F]ear is simply a spiritual memory lapse, a forgetting that God loves a human's soul enough to protect her."

The boys are on the roof.  They whisper outside our window.  There are gypsies in the trees.  But Christ slays the phantoms of this world.  They die in His light.  Feed on Christ and starve the phantoms.

Super 8


In 1971 urbanist William H. Whyte, mentor to Jane Jacobs ("The Death and Life of Great American Cities"), began the Street Life Project in New York City.  Whyte and his team trained Super 8 cameras on plazas, streets, playgrounds, and other small urban spaces and simply watched, via time-lapse photography, what people actually did.  What they found led to changes in the way we view the social settings of cities.  Whyte, the consummate participant observer, found that what people actually do and not what they say they do is the best key to the success of a place.  His observations seem, at times, remarkably unprofound, like common sense, and yet it was a common sense bereft of urban planners driven by notions of rationality and efficiency.  People were attracted to small spaces with high densities.

But better than the wisdom gained from such observation --- novel at the time but now more common if institutionalized (think web-cam, movement studies) --- are the black and white photos contained in the book that recorded his observations, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.  (There is also a one hour color film of the study here.)  The people.  Remember that this is 1971, the waning of the counterculture, pre-Watergate, and, judging by the photos, a time when life was of a slower pace, even in New York City.  African-American children ride bikes and play games in the middle of 101st Street in East Harlem, a couple kiss, a woman reads, people sunbathe.  Men watch women,  a woman and man (him in a checkerboard suit) clasp hands in the street, an older man points to the sky, a well-dressed  woman looks on.  People sit wherever there is room to sit --- on the ledge around St. Peter's church,  on a simple round bench at Rockefeller Center, or on the steps at St. Thomas church where the sun warms the stone.

What Whyte did was apply the power of observation so often used to study wildlife and natural areas to the urban landscape. In so doing, he unintentionally discovered more than just how people used small urban places.  He demonstrated the great diversity and richness of human social life.  Well-heeled shoppers, street people, children, the elderly, hippies, construction workers, office workers, policemen, and merchants all show up in his Super 8.  And he noticed something very important about place: "When you study a place and chart it and map it, you begin to acquire a proprietary right in it.  You do not reason this.  Obviously, you have no such right.  But you feel it.  It is your place.  You earned it."  He even noticed that he developed this same regard for people as he considered their patterns of behavior, sensing that "[t]hese are my people out there."

I would say it is much more than Whyte postulates.  Built in our very nature is a longing for community and for place, one that stems from our being made in God's image.  The triune God exists in community; we best image Him when we exist in community, not as isolated individuals.  Our very embodiment means that the body and place has deep meaning for us.  We are more human, and more humane, when we deeply connect with a people and a place.

In a new book, The Space Between: A Christian Engagement With the Built EnvironmentEric Jacobsen notes that "[w]e live in a culture that has become convinced that there is no longer any connection between geography (where one lives and the distinctive qualities of that place) and our experience of community."  We think place becomes irrelevant when social technologies foster relationships irrespective of place.  And yet I suspect a strange and disembodied anomie takes root when we live and interact primarily in front of monitors and television screens, with IPads and smartphones, and we begin to feel hollowed out and detached.

Whenever I travel one of the first things I do in a new place is to leave my hotel and walk in it.  These walks are always memorable, at least to me, however pedestrian they may seem to others.  I stop in a coffeeshop in Milwaukee and sit and listen to the conversations around me, see the somewhat different dress and features of the people that surround me.  I note street names, see people lounging on the grass and looking out their windows, reach out and touch brick and mortar, railings and trees, historic buildings and bridgeworks, relishing their physicality, their permanence.  And for a moment, like Whyte, I sense that the place is mine and the people, my people.  I am the Super 8.  But more than a mere recorder, I am outwalking in my place among my people.

God did the same.  He made a people and a place.  He walked in the cool of the Garden.  And throughout the history of the Hebrew people, he was never far way, covenantally bound with his people and their land, moving in and among them.  And then, quite amazingly, He came and walked among us.  His people, His place.  At the end of time, He will dwell with His embodied people (not spirits) in a real and tangible place.  Yes, we long for place and people --- for real community and "land" --- because it is who He is.

When I was a kid my friend Bobby and I walked the streets of our neighborhood, navigating backyards, jumping fences, avoiding dogs, and rehearsing for adulthood, among a place and a people that we will never forget.  Even now, I can remember the feel of fence posts, telephone poles, pavement, curb and gutter, and the grass in his backyard on which we lay looking out at stars.  It may only have been a barely noticed corner of suburbia, but I was Super 8.  I was outwalking.  Even now, I can see the street names, the navigable backyard paths, feel the asphalt under my feet.

I don't want to live life vicariously or virtually.  I don't want to just be a Super 8.  I want to live life among a people and a place that I deeply and intimately know.

I want to walk in it like God did.

 [The photo of William Whyte and his Super 8 camera, featured on the back cover of his book, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, is by Margret Bemiss, a researcher in the Street Life Project.]