My family and I just returned from a weekend at Camp Ewalu in Strawberry Point, Iowa. Like many Lutherans, I have fond memories of church camp from my childhood. Sharing that experience with my kids and other families from our congregation was extremely gratifying.
I think that the ELCA’s camps are among our most valuable resources. Each fall I am reminded of this when our students who were counselors over the summer return to campus. It’s amazing to see how their faith has grown and matured after a summer of ministry.
For many students, camp is the place where a call to ministry is either affirmed or heard for the first time. For that reason alone it’s an important part of our ministry.
Camp also provides an opportunity to get away from distractions and be refreshed and renewed through God’s creation and the promise of the gospel. In fact, going to camp is the closest that most of us Protestants will come to a monastic experience.
But camp is valuable not only for what is present but also for what is absent.
I was reminded of this the first night we were at Ewalu. After our evening camp fire, I went to make a phone call and realized with horror that I had no cell phone signal.
As I pondered this I realized what I’d been missing all day — the constant buzzing of my cell phone as emails and texts poured in.
Suddenly I felt absolutely cut off from the world, like a little kid who realizes that they’ve been left out of something the other kids are doing. I didn’t realize how much this feeling of constant connection was a part of my life until I no longer had it.
That isn’t to say that I’ve decided that technology is evil and decided to go off the grid when I went home. Technology and the many activities that fill up our lives are not intrinsically good or bad. Like all of God’s gifts they can be either depending on how we make use of them.
I was reminded of this while reading an article about Cathy Davidson, a Duke University English professor who’s written a new book about how technological change is affecting us.
She argues that our nostalgia for a simpler time with fewer technological distractions is as naïve as the idea that technology is going to solve all our problems.
Trying to escape the distractions in our lives shouldn’t be our goal, she claims. What we need is some perspective. We have to give ourselves breaks from our distractions rather than eliminate them altogether.
Our weekend at the family camp was a much-needed break from the usual distractions of life. It helped to put things in perspective and recharged me spiritually as well as physically. Paradoxically we need to withdraw at times from our everyday lives in order to engage more fully in the world.
The dance between engagement and withdrawal is an important spiritual practice. In fact it’s central to our theology as ELCA Christians. We hold fast to the idea that our faith is both personal and communal.
We need time with God away from the distractions of everyday life, yet we are always called to plunge back into the distractions of life to give ourselves away in service to our neighbors.
I’m grateful that our ELCA camps play such an important role in reminding us of this fact.
Brian Beckstrom is campus pastor at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.