Text: 1 Kings 19:3-15 (Elijah in the desert)
In today’s reading, Elijah flees to the desert looking for safety. The Queen of Israel is threatening to kill him in a religious dispute.
Elijah imagines that he will find God in the desert. And he does. But Elijah doesn’t find God in the strong winds. He doesn’t find God in an earthquake. He doesn’t find God in the fire. Instead, Elijah finds God in silence, when the desert quiets down after a wind storm, an earthquake, and a fire.
This story might resonate with those of us who have also had difficulty finding God, or those who have retreated to wild places hoping to find the Sacred. Today, I invite us to share some stories about camping and our attempts to find God in nature or wilderness.
To get us started, I now offer two of my experiences with church camp. One comes from when I was 10 years old, and the other is from a canoe trip in 2002 when I was already in mid-life.
I grew up in Cornwall Ontario, which is on the St. Lawrence River near the border with Quebec. When I was 10 years old, my older brother and I spent a week at a United Church camp on the Rideau River about halfway between Ottawa and the St. Lawrence River.
We had some tough times that week. It was blistering hot, and during a long hike on dusty roads around the camp several campers succumbed to heat stroke. We also didn’t love the religious instruction that was part of camp.
My brother and I were preachers’ kids. My late father, Rev. James Clare Kellogg, was the minister at Knox United Church in Cornwall. So Paul and I were surprised when we seemed to be a lot more liberal than other boys on issues like keeping the Sabbath holy.
Overall, I was happy with the week. I was pleased that I had survived the heat and the bugs and had enjoyed the games and swimming.
Nevertheless, my parents decided that summer camp wasn’t for us, and we never returned.
More important to me was a week-long wilderness canoe trip of 18 adults in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park in 2002. That trip was organized by the United Church of Canada’s Five Oaks Retreat Centre, which, sadly, is going to close this November.
In 2002, I had recently returned to church after years away, and the minister of the congregation I had joined in Toronto suggested that I go on this canoe trip, an experience she had loved the summer before.
I was nervous about it. I knew that canoeing and portaging were physically demanding, and this made me worry about my bad back. I also worried about digestion, about bugs, about storms, and about being with 18 strangers for seven days and nights. Nevertheless, I had a sense that this experience would work for me, so off I went.
The Program Director of our week was Mardi Tindal. At the time, Mardi was a staff member at Five Oaks, while today she is a former Moderator of the United Church. I feel lucky that Mardi was one of the leaders on that experience.
Mardi and I bonded on our very first portage. We had set out from a base camp on a windy lake on a Sunday morning and had paddled for about two hours to get to the other side. To make it from there to the next lake where we were to camp that night, we had to carry all our stuff over a one-kilometre-long portage through the woods.
When Mardi and I stopped to rest on our way back for the second load of canoes and packs, we agreed that we had never worked so hard in our lives! She noted that having canoed across the first lake and having lugged all of our belongings to the next one, we were stuck. Even if we wanted to bail on the rest of the week, we couldn’t. The only way back to our starting point was to complete the rest of the circular course with our companions. This brought a self-help expression to our minds: “the only way out is through.”
In the end, I loved the week despite rain, exhaustion, mosquitoes, and snoring companions. Perhaps most important, the experience helped to solidify what for me was a new understanding of the word “faith.” Faith is not about believing incredible things. For me, faith is about trust — trust in our bodies despite their fragility; trust in the earth despite its indifference to us puny humans; trust in community despite the brokenness and pain we all bring to relationships; and trust in the God who is the ground of being, life, and love.
That week also gave me a crash course in how the culture of the United Church had changed since I was a teenager. People seemed a lot less moralistic than what I remembered from childhood.
I came home from this canoe trip confident that I had made the right choice in returning to the United Church. It helped me to decide that what I wanted for the rest of my life was building community with fellow broken pilgrims.
So there you have it, two stories of my United Church camp experiences.
I now open the floor to others who want to tell us a story about their church camp experiences. Perhaps you have a story about Mill Woods United weekends at Camp Maskepetoon. Perhaps about a church camp when you were a kid. Do you remember nights of heat and bug bites that made you pine for home? Have you ever gone on a church camping trip as an adult? What would you like to share?
The floor is now open . . .
Thank you all for contributing.
Being at a camp site or on a wilderness trip can remind me of many important things: our connection with the rest of life; the importance of beauty; our physical and emotional dependence on others; and of our smallness in the face of immensity of the earth, the power of lakes and rivers, and the infinite shining heaven of starry nights. Camping can also help show us again that our greatest joy is to give and receive love with our companions on the journey.
Camping does not always lead to such epiphanies, of course. But often friendships are forged there, life-partnerships begin, and a deeper faith is found.
So today, on this picnic in the park, I pray that we will continue to find opportunities to be refreshed by the beauty of nature. And may we find new levels of faith as we journey with each other on a sacred path of faith, hope and love.
May it be so