Summer Days: Camping
I’ve told you before how significant an experience going to camp was for me as I grew up: significant for my life’s journey, my faith development, my call to ministry. And I’ve told you that I grew up attending Camp Aldersgate, up in Brantingham, NY. Before Upper New York, and before we became North Central New York, in fact, my conference was the Northern New York Annual Conference, and Aldersgate was our camp. Everyone in my family went to Aldersgate. My Aunt and Uncle met there. My cousin and her husband met there. Everyone from our church went there. Eventually, when I was still a pretty young child, we became North Central New York – all Apple Valley’s predecessor congregations were in the Central New York Conference – and suddenly Casowasco became a part of our Conference. I had never been to Casowasco, but I heard about it, of course. It was the fancy camp. In fact, it wasn’t really like camping at all. It was practically like taking a vacation in a hotel. Not really going to camp, like at Aldersgate, where you stayed in rustic camping. Or even more so, like the year I went to Adventure Camp, and we stayed in tents out in the Wilderness Area all week. That was really camping. Or even more so, like the Backpacking and Canoe Trip campers, who actually travelled all week, and stayed in tents in a different place each night. Now that was really camping. But Casowasco? With a lakeside mansion to stay in? How could that be camp?
Of course, I had never been to or seen Casowasco. And I never wanted to either. And then, in high school, I served as one of the youth representatives to the conference’s camping board, and our meetings were split – half at Aldersgate…and half at Casowasco. I felt like a traitor, stepping onto the grounds of the camp. Ok, I had to admit, it was very lovely. But it wasn’t camp. And then, I attended a youth event there, for a weekend. And ok, I had a lot of fun. But it wasn’t really camping, of course. And then some years passed, and I went to college, and I went to seminary, and I started in my first year as a pastor, and it had been a while since I’d been to camp. And I was helping out now as the leader of the conference youth I’d once been part of. And in my first year, I dutifully brought my sleeping bag to meeting and slept on the cold, hard floors of local church as I had when I was a youth. And then I bought an air mattress. And then I bought a nicer air mattress. And then I realized that when I had the choice of place to go for a retreat – I was heading not to Aldersgate, but to Casowasco, or someplace like it. Somewhere where you didn’t have to leave your cabin and walk to a washhouse to use the restroom, and instead, enjoyed the lovely view from your room in the old mansion on the lake… Of course, I still love Aldersgate. And I can still make a case for it being more like “camping” than Casowasco. But now you all know the truth. I’ve come to prefer my comfortable surroundings more than “real camp” experience of Aldersgate. (1)
What kind of camper are you? An Aldersgator? Or more like Casowasco? Tents? An RV? Or is a fancy hotel the closest thing to camping you do? If you do a quick google search or go on a site like Pinterest, you can find a lot of images and ideas for “Glamping” – that is, glamorous camping, camping with a lot of frills and bells and whistles. Is this really camping? Is this your kind of camping? This week, as I was preparing my sermon, I got thinking about this tendency. We have this tendency, many of us anyway, to want to settle down. That’s not a bad thing, of course. Settling down often means buying a home, or finding a career that you want to stick with, or having children, or getting married – some of life’s many blessings are things we associate with settling down. Putting down roots.
I wonder, though, if we’re always aware of the difference between settled and stagnant. Think of bodies of water. A body of water can be calm, settled, and placid, but that’s an entirely different thing than water that is stagnant, dead, and lifeless. A placid body of water still has life and air and movement. I think of a study I read earlier this year that said Americans sit too much. Now, this is probably isn’t news to most of us. We’ve all read stories about the general declining health of our citizens. But what’s interesting about this latest study is that the results showed that even for people who regularly exercised every day, the exercise was not enough to counteract the negative effects of sitting still for the rest of the day. Of course, some folks are challenged by various concerns and moving around all day isn’t a real possibility. But for most of us, we’re sitting around all day out of choice. More than ever, Americans spend their days sitting: at work, at home, in front of a computer, in front of the TV, in front of our smart phone screens and tablets. The study indicated that we need more regular movement throughout our day, every day, in addition to regular focused exercise, to be really healthy.
I had all this in mind as I was mulling over Abram’s story in the scriptures this week. We talked about Sarai and Abram back way back in January, when we were talking about the new names God gives. But our focus is a bit different today. Today, I want us to think about Abram’s camping trips. See, Abram was just a man, with a wife named Sarai, who was living life, when for no named reason whatsoever, no particular quality to note in their character, no explanation given, God tells Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” This happened when Abram was 75. And we read, “So Abram went.” It’s my favorite part of the passage. He asks no questions, not a single one. He just goes. He packs up all his possessions, gathers his family, and they set out to Canaan. And then from there they go to Shechem. And from there, we read “he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent.” And from there, the text says, “Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.” Along the way, he builds altars to God, signs of worship. But they’re temporary. Because Abram and his family are living in tents, and they’re constantly moving. They’re on an extended camping trip. At a word from God, he’s become nomadic.
Being a wandering, nomadic people – that becomes the story of God’s people – they’re on the move for so much of the Old Testament in particular. Being a people on the move is so central to their identity that when they do finally settle down, the law is filled with admonitions to be particularly welcoming to the strangers, the foreigners, because they for so long were wanderers themselves. And God is clearly a moving God. Remember, last week, when we read Genesis 1 together, God was described as being a wind that was sweeping over the face of the waters before anything else was even created. Already moving.
Eventually, though, after generations, God’s people want to settle down. They want to be in one place. And they want God to be in one place. They clamor for a king, a way to be just like other nations, and those kings really want to build God a temple, a place where they can go and know that God will be present. Everyone wants to settle down. Settling down isn’t bad. And God blesses and encourages some of these impulses in our biblical witness. But sometimes the settled seems to turn into the stagnant. And the people who want to stay put also don’t want to follow God – physically or spiritually – anymore.
I think of our own Methodist heritage. In early Methodism, John Wesley, the founder of the movement, was an itinerant preacher. He didn’t have one fixed congregation. Like Abram, he was a wanderer. He preached in fields, wherever he could. And when Methodism took hold in young America, circuit riders went from town to town to preach and teach and bring the sacraments. Methodism was a movement. It was mobile. Wesley, responding to advice that he “settle in college” to teach, that he “out to sit still,” responded, that he looked on all the world as his parish. (2) What was once a Methodist movement of revival has now become an institution, a denomination. And that’s not bad – I love The United Methodist Church. But an institution still has to have movement within it, lest it become not settled, but stagnant.
The thing is, our God is always on the move. Always active, living, moving, getting into every corner where there is need and pain and injustice – God is always right in the thick of that. And God is always calling us to follow. Jesus’ call is an active one: Follow Me. Go where I send you. The disciples in Acts are called apostles, which literally means “the ones who are sent.” Their very identity encompasses movement. Nothing about God is stagnant, and God means for nothing about God’s people to be stagnant either.
So, I’ve got to ask you – is your faith life, your relationship with God growing? Moving? Settled? Or stagnant? Are we too comfortable to respond to God’s call? I’m not saying God’s calling us in the same way God called Abram – no two stories are the same with God. But I can’t think of any stories of God calling someone that were calls to keep doing exactly what they’d been doing. No stories of scripture where God says, “Looks good, Beth. Now just keep doing that exact same thing forever and ever Amen.” God’s just got too much energy and too much life and too much joy for that, and a world that experiences joy and life and energy too unevenly for us to not be a people of faith who are on the move with God. On the move as we send dollars with campers for life-changing experiences with God. On the move as we send nets to Africa to help end devastating malaria. On the move as we send some of our church family into new adventures in new stages of their lives. On the move as we welcome new faces and new lives into this place. On the move even to next door or to co-workers or family members who are seeking the face of Christ and can find it in us.
Grab your tent. God is on the move. And I think we’d better follow. Amen.
(1) Be not alarmed, friends of Casowasco and Aldersgate. Both are lovely camps, with real camping. They’re just each their own. Just go to camp somewhere!