Sometimes, when a combination of internal and external forces intermingle in a perfect storm within your psyche and your life, you end up attending a week-long church camp for 8 summers in a row during the course of your youth. For me, church camp was always an interesting social experience wherein there was much praise and worship, some exceptionally boring devotional time, ministries meant to appeal to your emotions and subsequently your parents' pocketbooks, fun games, some very questionable leadership, and some good old-fashioned, complicated adolescent relational scenarios.
Right now you're definitely thinking, let's hear more about these fun games, and of course I have no choice but to acquiesce. Here's a list of very important team-building exercises executed at church camp:
- Fit the most marshmallows into your mouth and say "chubby bunny."
- Swim across the pool and jump out, pull a food item out of a paper bag, and consume it as quickly as possible. That's right... even if it's macaroni and cheese baby food. Then swim back across the pool right away. Disregard cramps from swimming directly after eating.
- Tie ropes around a tightly-packed group of kids, forcing them to cooperate through obstacle courses, consequently forcing them to smell one another.
- Chug a gallon of milk: three take the challenge, three projectile vomit, one wins by applause.
- Destroy your opponents with eggs. Glory in the highest!
- Destroy your opponents with water. Hallowed be thy name!
- Destroy your opponents with jello. Eat of my flesh!
- Capture the flag. Huzzah!
- Kickball, Wiffle ball, volleyball, Frisbee, Hacky Sack, etc, and so on.
Before I mislead you into thinking I was only in attendance for the games, I acknowledge that I spent most of my adolescence as a child of faith. I praised, I worshiped, I experienced devotion, I cried at every vesper moment that was orchestrated for such an outpouring, I accepted Jesus into my heart, I was baptized, I prayed without ceasing, and I marveled at the wonder of it all. But I would be lying to you if I said I was so comfortable with my spiritual leanings. I hadn't felt compelled to ask too many questions yet, as questions to a Christian are often inherently intermingled with fear and guilt. But I did feel a constant undercurrent of disconcertion at so much forced, superficial piety. So, it wasn't all about the fun and games, but that was the most welcome aspect of church camp for me, because in addition to being so enjoyable, it seemed to place us all--youths and leaders alike--into the sort of freewheeling, honest spiritual accord that I longed for.
The last time I attended church camp, prior to entering 9th grade, I was subjected to a game that left me no choice but to face the questions I had been suppressing up to that point in my life, the consequences of which were profound, albeit likely unintended by the game's creators. The day in question began with fake cash money. Every camper received the same amount and was instructed that this money could be used at stations throughout the camp, which included: swimming, canoeing, gambling, volleyball tournaments, treats, various contests, a cult (yes, a cult), and many other options that were available to simulate life as superficially as possible, including, of course, church. This was a no-brainer. Clearly there was going to be some great reward at the end of this day for attending fake church, and I'm nothing if not a pleasure-delayer, so I convinced a couple of friends that our time (and fake cash) was best spent in religious prostration. Basically, it seemed like the right thing to do. Without speculating much beyond that point, we passed the day reading from bibles, volunteering to clear the camp of debris, tithing pretend money, getting pretend baptized, witnessing to pretend gamblers and cultists, and so on. At dinner, some of the individuals who had won contests were rewarded with t-shirts, and leadership announced that the game was complete. I was somehow perturbed, having spent the day watching others doing activities that I would have preferred to be doing, all for the sake of a reward that didn't exist. My sacrifice hadn't been worthwhile, and I wondered what the point of the exercise could have been, since this was church camp.*
That evening we were advised that our fake lives were over, and we were to be judged by Almighty God. The population of campers was corralled into a long, snaking, uncomfortably quiet line underneath the stars on such a humid, earthy night. I watched as my peers were ushered one-by-one through the front doors of a rickety chapel and then out by a side door thirty seconds later--usually greeted by an unfortunately-clad demon. At my turn, I entered the wooden exoskeleton of the place where God dwells, stood before a light so bright that my vision was obscured, and a booming voice declared I would proceed to heaven where I would then abide for eternity. I was led out of the side door and met by a camp leader who hugged me as I sobbed uncontrollably for reasons I didn't understand. Then I was led to the recreation hall, where I was served sheet cake and invited to dance to ska music. Ultimately, 7 out of approximately 100 campers made the trip to heaven, a fortuitous biblical number. I remember thinking that the cake was much larger than the seven of us could possibly consume. I implored a leader that I trusted to explain to me why this was considered an apt representation of heaven, since I was so irreconcilably upset. I was told that we couldn't know what the experience of heaven would actually be like. But this heaven didn't feel very heavenly at all, and--although I did not deign to argue that I could inhabit the mind of God, at the time--I couldn't imagine any circumstance where I could maintain my corporeal consciousness and my current presence of mind, while held in eternal peace, and simultaneously accept that almost everyone I knew and cared for was burning in hell--in this case a dark, cobwebby basement under the mess hall, filled with innumerable campers and daddies long-legged, along with pious camp counselors posing as demons.
Looking back, I have to appreciate the message, because I was forced to have an experience that--in summation with the rest of my days--resulted in the grit to tolerate introspective questions that, though they remain unanswered, must be asked.
Every rung goes higher, higher.
* You feel me, Pete Holmes.