Joyful Love

“You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place, I told him, like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.”

Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

Working in outdoor ministry is transformative. It heals us, nourishes us, challenges us, pushes us to breaking points. We get bent in new directions. We learn to hold on. We learn to let go.

For those of you who haven’t experienced outdoor ministry, I’ll do my best to articulate what the culture of my summer home is like.  The words “summer” and “camp” probably bring to mind silly songs about woodland critters, the feeling of hot sunlight on your skin, campfire smoke on your clothes, “war paint” mud on your face as you charge into a game of Capture the Flag, and burnt s’mores on your tongue.

And then there’s the ministry piece that infiltrates through all that we do, infecting the essence of this sacred patch of earth. The Spirit is alive and active in all that we do – unconditional love is practiced in cooking together, hiking, doing chores, games, and we can thank God that this love shows.  Outdoor ministry is a beautiful practice. The specific outdoor ministry I work at is Good Earth Village.  It is by no means a perfect place, but our imperfect attempts at unconditional love create a heaven on Earth for many. How we exist in time and space here is different from the American culture I’m used to.

I want to emphasize culture here. Culture is a way of life for a group of people that run even deeper than expressions of clothing, food or music.  Cultural values affect how a group collectively defines its leadership, relationship with nature, gender roles, attitudes about race or socioeconomic status, approaches to problem solving, beauty ideals, familial relations, justice systems, ways of handling emotion, child rearing practices, tempo of work, ordering of time…I could list more, but I think you get the picture.

Thursday evening this week was spent in deep discussion with high school campers who talked about all the reasons why their last night at camp is bittersweet every year.  “Bible Fun Time” grew into reflection on how amazing our week of camping, white water rafting, and traversing a high ropes course had been…and why they didn’t want to go home.  Let me paraphrase for you some of our conversation (Mountaineers, if you’re reading this, this is my best impression of what I think our whole group was getting at…let me know if I’m off!) :

“I feel so loved here…I love that we’re outside all the time…I like that our days just revolved around eating, sleeping, and lots of fun stuff in between…I never get to do this stuff at home. My family isn’t that outdoorsy…My family and friends at school don’t get why I love camp so much…Spreading God’s love is so cool…I like that we actually talk about God. And that God is connected to EVERYTHING…I like that we get to have adventures!…Why can’t more people just burst out in song in normal life?…I think more people would be happy if they hugged as much as we did…I wish I could sleep under the stars every night…Everything is crazy and spontaneous and fun here.  We don’t have to sit still and follow a plan all the time.”

Campers (and summer staff!) love that they can immerse themselves in a different set of values at Good Earth Village.  Living outside teaches us to value the power of the earth and how it’s more productive to work within its wonders rather than try to dominate them – how can we use the sunlight, rain or fresh air for everyone’s benefit?  Playing games teaches us about good sportsmanship while still having fun – how can we all use our talents to get the other team’s flag while still protecting our own?  And then still be good friends with the other team so that we can have fun when the game is done? 😉

Traditional American gender roles are blurred here, too.  All of us on staff express emotion, care for children, cook…and  build fires, use tools, and go trekking through the woods.  We come from various socioeconomic backgrounds, but when we all live simply and share resources in community we don’t have to feel bogged down by prejudices against our families’ situations.  And beauty? I wear T-shirts and cut off shorts everyday, hair pulled back in a bandana, hardly ever see myself in a mirror, and only shower on Fridays. Who am I impressing…the squirrels? The pressure to prove yourself to someone with your looks (or grades or ability to “sit still and focus”) is gone, and all that’s left is this beautiful space to grow happiness instead of meeting society’s expectations.

Then campers hit the end of their week and summer staff reach the end of their season. We go home transformed because we have experienced a different way of being alive. But we go home to buildings that use A.C., electricity, and running water that make it easier to take the Earth’s resources for granted.  Time with family or friends around a T.V. suddenly seems dry compared to trekking through the woods together. Adrenaline rushes from cooking in the rain or overcoming obstacles in the creek are harder to find.  Then the onslaught of media messages about how awful we are nearly drowns us and we try to pull ourselves up by competing, comparing, and buying things we don’t actually need. We find ourselves sitting a lot more and being critiqued on our ability to focus on a task behind a desk. The joy that was sprouting out of our minds, spirits and bodies grows duller and as we fight against apathy we fear will overtake us. Our camp community was dispersed and it’s hard not to feel like our spirits are flattening.

But…

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Yes, we’re spread out and back in a consumer driven, individualistic culture dependent on standard procedures that don’t like emotion, physical activity, or critical questions.  However, GOD IS STILL PRESENT. Remember that joy you felt playing Capture the Flag in a crazy costume and running to save your new friend from the other team’s jail while looking for another flag at the same time? That feeling of “Holy crap! I’m gonna pass through that opening in the crowd, dodge the tree, then Mahoods cabin, loop back around…is the flag there? NO IT’S NOT! I’M COMING TO SAVE YOU DANNY!!!!!!” Remember that feeling and HOLD ON like your life depends on it. Because there are a lot of people in your school, house of worship, and neighborhood who don’t know what that feels like.  To them sitting still, being quiet, using retail therapy, taking the easy way, following the crowd, not asking questions, and being bored are normal.

God wants us to thrive. In the beginning, God took a little dirt, blew into it, created people and called us good. We are dirt and God and goodness all wrapped up together, and man, we are miracles meant to shine.  We love, smile, run, breathe, play, help, eat, dance, sing, hug…and create. We were made in God’s image, and what is God better at than creating things with love? Create fun. Create joy. Create love in all that you do. The first twelve disciples scattered after Jesus death and resurrection. Jesus gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit and they sure accomplished a heck of a lot wandering though the world and showing people how to thrive on Earth.  They didn’t stay back in a hobbit hole somewhere acting like the prime of their life was past.

I won’t lie – it’s really hard being away from Good Earth Village. Whenever I turn onto Old Town Drive, all my life stresses melt off my shoulders. I’m surprised I haven’t seen them literally fall onto the ground, because that’s what it feels like whenever I return. Camp always puts my life struggles in a different light. I leave Good Earth Village as a transformed human being every time, but I return a transformed human being as well. Family deaths, births, new or strengthened relationships, academic learning, travel, volunteering, really good books…these have all shaped me between my times at camp and they have transformed my understanding of life itself.

The beginning of each of my summers here has felt just as different as the end of each summer. Because I am different. No moment is the same because each moment is a fresh start, an opportunity for me to allow Jesus to work through me.  Jesus is always everywhere, throughout time and space (he was just more obvious to the naked eye for a few decades a couple thousand years ago.) Let us recognize that we are God incarnate – living dust full of God’s goodness – and that we are called to recognize our goodness in ourselves and each other. Always. Everywhere. Challenge the norm by living out raw, spontaneous, unconditional love.

God IS the heartbeat of the Earth. You just have to listen and help others hear it, too. Then dance. 🙂

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