Christian Family Camp is the kind of thing that, had I had introduced the concept to my younger, atheist self, my younger atheist self would have gagged on his Tootsie Pop.
But because our God is a Hey-Let’s-Mess-with-Conor-Because-It’s-Oh-So-Funny kind of God, this particular Christian family camp is, today, my favorite week of the year.
Camp-of-the-Woods is up in the Adirondacks. Three years ago, when we were first planning our trip, I visited the website. And that website told me that Camp-of-the-Woods was everything I feared it might be.
The photos told the story of a camp frozen in time in the 1950’s. A stretch of bungalows on Lake Pleasant. Life-jacket-clad happy people paddling canoes. Kids playing on the sandy beach in the cancer-dispensing midday sun. Shuffle board. The decollated head of a moose on the wall of every common area. Camp-of-the-Woods was the kind of place that called the restroom “the Necessary Room.”
No thanks, dude.
For one, I’m an isolation guy. I’m not looking to be packed in with folks when I’m on vacation. I need about a county, maybe a county-and-a-half to myself to feel comfortable.
For another, this sort of holiday – with preplanned meals all together and lake-based activities with a bunch of strangers – it kind of creeps me out.
But so many of our best friends that we love and trust swore by Camp-of-the-Woods. They had been going for years, when their kids were young and when their kids were grown. People would fly their families across the country to spend a week with these shuffleboarders and moose heads.
More importantly, many of them would be there the week we were going. And we really do adore our friends. So we found ourselves driving the four hours up to Speculator, NY, dubious and resigned.
Within 24 hours of arriving at Camp-of-the-Woods, the place became our favorite vacation spot of all time. This is our third year here.
So I guess the question for me is this:
How does something I don’t like become something that I do like? How does something that, on its own, I think will be horrible, become wonderful beyond expectation?
This would be a good time to point out that Camp-of-the-Woods is an objectively spectacular place that people have loved for generations. It’s quite glorious, really. But it was, quite simply, not destined to be my bag. Like, at all. That’s because I just don’t love being around people. I dread all receptions and every parent-coffee-meet-up. I scan cocktail parties for fat trash cans that I might be able to fit into and ride out the evening in blissful isolation.
Camp was destined to be a horrible experience for me. Here’s how it became wonderful for me. But first it requires a word of background on Conor:
For 51 weeks a year, I am careful about how speak to people.
For 51 weeks I know that if I say words like Church or God or (especially!) Jesus, that people will, at best, tune me out. More likely, they will become deeply uncomfortable. More likely than that, they will try to get out of that conversation, usually after smiling awkwardly and saying that it’s great that I’m religious before grabbing the wheel of the conversation and spinning it like a midshipman trying to avoid an iceberg.
I don’t blame them.
As a former atheist, I know how cringingly uncomfortable it can be when somebody mentions Jesus. You’re just hoping they don’t ask you to come to church with them, and you don’t want to hurt their feelings by telling them you think it’s Pure Delusion to believe that a fellow who lived two thousand years ago was the actual and literal Son of God.
As a non-believer, you want to talk about ANYTHING else. Anything. Because Christians – myself included – can sound superior and judgey and preachy. We don’t focus on our own brokenness, oh no. We focus on How We Can Help This Poor Soul Who Doesn’t Get it. It is rarely about saving a soul and usually about getting validation for our own beliefs.
(BTW, my non-Christian friends, if it makes you feel any better, Jesus calls us out on this many, many times. “Y’all are in a tizzy about getting out the splinter of wood in that dude’s eye? Seriously? Bro, you have a sequoia in your eye – how about y’all go ahead and work on that. Love you!” I’m paraphrasing but He says that kind of thing over and over.)
So I am aware, my non-Christian friends, how horrible we are at talking about something important to us. How horrible I am. I’m sorry about that.
And because I’m self-conscious about talking about it in a way that is not loving or thoughtful or respectful to the person I’m speaking with, I tend to temper how I speak. I am careful with my words. By design, I don’t often bring it up in conversation.
But then, for one week a year – this week – I can just ramble about stuff.
I don’t have to be careful to not turn people off. I don’t need to worry how I’m perceived. For one week a year I feel like I’m taking off a mask and putting it in the knotted pine chest of drawers in our lakeside bungalow of Camp-of-the-Woods.
Don’t misunderstand me – my closest friend of 25 years doesn’t share my faith, and I love talking to him and other UVA buddies constantly and I can be completely and totally myself around them. I don’t mean my whole life is an act or anything so dramatic as that.
I guess a better way to say it would be this:
I know I can be a bit of a mess.
I bottle a whole lot of stuff up deep inside.
I suffer anxieties about family and about future and about writing and about relationships.
I have a deep-rooted fear of being abandoned by people I love. (Ugh.)
I cover it all with this mask, because this is how I get through days. I am happy with my life, I love my family and my work and my friends and my town.
But this mask covers the bad stuff. The ugh stuff.
The ugh stuff can make me feel very alone.
But here is the thing. Here is the thing that transforms Camp-of-the-Woods from a place I dreaded coming to into my favorite vacation of the year:
For one week a year, I am no longer alone.
Because when I put down that mask that covers up all the ugh stuff, for an entire week? It forces me to do something else: It forces me to admit defeat. It forces me to accept that I can’t actually get through all this on my own, no matter how loving my family and friends are, no matter how committed to counseling I am.
This is the week I surrender in the Battle to Fix Myself. This is the week that I stop trying to fight alone. This, my friends, is the week I unbolt the hundred foot gates and let Him see how alone and helpless I actually am. This is the week He has been waiting for. This is the week He sends His army for me.
Friends who don’t share my faith, thanks for sticking with this post. I know how it must sound with all the talk of God and Jesus – boy do I know it. So thanks for listening even though I know you think I’m a total nutter butter. I’ll stop talking now.
Oh, except lemme tell you about the Five Things that Drive me Nuts about Camp:
1.) Salad bar.
I don’t have a lot of experience with salad bars. In an ill-advised attempt to eat healthy because every night we have moose tracks flavored ice cream (because camp!), I have been checking out the salad bar for the first time, and I’m not very good at it. How do people pick up all the things they want without dropping them? Chick peas are flying into the ranch dressing and I have to scoop them out and then my cucumbers sailed into the thousand island and I had to scoop them out and next thing I know I have five dressings on my salad, each of which has the caloric content of a Whopper. FAIL.
What’s up with sand? Who thought this was a good idea, sand? I feel like we are one day going to think of sand like we now think of asbestos. Why did we ever allow it into our lives? It’s like smart dirt, gripping you and following you inside like a virus. And it’s convinced our civilization to make Sand Boxes in our backyards, far from the beach. And there are trillions of trillions of these things. If they ever become self-aware? Hoo boy. Watch out.
3.) The Shallowness of the Lake.
Shallow lakes are phenomenal for little kids – calm and fun and perfect. But there are drawbacks. In a bold move, I decided to go for a morning swim, egged on by my friend, and we kind of ran out there like they do in movies and you think you’re going to take a few steps and dive in and everyone will cheer for you. Except at Lake Pleasant you’re still running a quarter mile later and you’re still only knee-deep and the people on the shore who are supposed to be cheering are getting bored and they walk away except for one guy who’s yelling “Just dive already!”
4.) Wet Firewood.
Last year it rained a bunch of days, and all the firewood got wet. You ever try to make a campfire with wet wood? Lemme tell you what happens – you have a bunch of kids with marshmallows already on sticks waving them around wondering where the fire is and you’re on your stomach, blowing gently on this flicker of an ember, begging the Holy Spirit to fan this flame into a blaze for His Glory and roast thy marshmallows and nothing happens because stupid wet wood.
5.) Late Bedtimes.
Every night, Liz and I say this: The kids HAVE to be asleep by 9 pm tonight. LATEST. No exceptions. And then at 9 pm not only are your kids not asleep, nor are they in bed, nor have they yet showered or brushed their teeth, you literally don’t even know where your children are. You try to play it cool and sort of nudge a buddy like “Hey amigo, I don’t suppose you know where my children are?” And they shrug and look around and then they point out at the lake and go “There?” and you see a bunch of silhouettes in the lake throwing sand at each other and you’re like “Ha ha, oh good! Kids being kids! They sure love that lake!” but you’re actually wondering whether there is any way to just fence off the whole lake forever.
Okay. Time for more Camp. Also, I don’t totally know where my kids are.