I grew up in youth group. But this wasn’t just any youth group. I grew up in the youth group at one of the largest Southern Baptist churches in Georgia, definitely the largest one south of Atlanta (or at least it was back then).
I was a teen for God, through and through. I was at every church service, convinced my friends to come with me as often as I could (using free pizza and soda as a lure), and led a girls’ Bible study group, was the president of my school’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and generally saw myself as sort of enrolled in the gifted and talented group of young Christians.
To say I was a bit self-righteous is an understatement. But I like the way Dar Williams puts it in her introduction to the song: “It was complicated, but in a really great way.”
I enjoyed that time in my life. I went to church camp every summer and over every winter break from school. Church camp was a yearly excursion, something to look forward to. We loaded up several buses full of kids and took over a couple of floors at the Adams Mark Hotel in Daytona Beach. We did recreation on the beach each day. There was a boardwalk, which sported a shop just around the corner with probably the best pralines I’ve ever had. My sister and I always roomed together (until she graduated), and every morning, girls would show up at our door, asking us to French braid their hair (because we were the only ones who knew how to do it – we really should have charged money; we would have made a killing).
Church camp wasn’t all fun and games though. Kids went through some serious stuff there. That was the point; it was a time away from home, parents, friends, etc., when you were to have a religious experience. Because we were young, and evangelical, that religious experience was often limited to just the salvation experience: it was about saving souls, and the rest of the year was when we would worry about developing young Christians into mature ones.
It was not uncommon for kids to make major decisions, to get saved or rededicate their lives or ask to get baptized. In fact, before we left each week, we got up and did a sunrise baptism in the ocean. Our youth minister took the dozen or so kids that wanted to be baptized out into the ocean and baptized while the rest of us, all usually clad in our church camp t-shirts, watched from the shore.
The final night of church camp, Thursday night, was the big emotional climax of the week. Kids who had been working through emotional things all week sort of hit their breaking point. It was not uncommon for Thursday night service to run much later than usual; I remember one year, we ran a good hour and a half past the scheduled ending time, and I noticed one of the middle school girls sitting nearby me had fallen asleep while the music played, the invitation carried on, and kids huddled on their knees in groups at the altar, some of them sobbing. The message would always be particularly strong, and emotional, that night. It was exhausting; the baptism the next morning was almost cathartic, the calm after the storm.
In those Thursday night sessions, smaller break-out groups would meet on the sidelines, and the mantra that was always repeated was that we couldn’t leave our experiences at the beach. We had to take them home. We had to keep our passion alive, keep the fire going. One year, the church camp slogan was “Christ Day by Day,” and that sentiment was echoed for a good month afterwards as people insisted that we had to keep going, keep that camp passion alive, carry it on in our daily lives.
The thing was, though, that the passion does die down. Not every night can be that Thursday night. We have to carry on. We have to survive. The same way that Christmas is only one day a year, that snow days are temporary (it has to melt sometimes), at some point, camp ends and real life begins.
I’ve been out of youth group for quite awhile now, but I still recognize that desperate end-of-camp feeling, that entreaty that we don’t forget all our hard work, our triumphs, after we get home. I’ve felt that the past day or so as I’ve gotten back to work after Spring Break. I wrote over spring break. That may not sound like a huge deal coming from someone who blogs regularly, but I wrote. I got out my computer, opened a blank Word document, and created something where there once was nothing. It wasn’t an assignment, I wasn’t being compensated; I just rolled the dice and wrote because I had the compulsion in me to do so. I haven’t written like that in about a year and a half, and it was fantastic.
But then Spring Break ended. I packed a lunch, I picked out my work clothes, I went to bed early, and I returned to teaching. I told myself that I had laid the groundwork for keeping up that good behavior, of writing on my non-teaching days. But as it usually does, life gets in the way. One of my bosses needs something done right now. I need to wash clothes so I have pants to wear. I need to go to the grocery store and make dinner, and on and on. And that camp feeling goes away because real life swallows it, as it often will.
So today I’ve been thinking about that girl I once was, that youth group girl who believed that if we tried hard enough, we could take camp home with us. If we wore the t-shirts to remind us of our camp slogans – Way Truth Life Jesus; deeper; i believe; Christus Diem ex Die (Christ Day by Day) – that we could keep up that momentum and be the people we were supposed to be, the people that, really, only existed on retreat, at a location other than home with no school, or work, or obligations to get in the way.
This post has become a bit of a bummer, so I’ll say this: I managed to sit down and blog today. I’m sending off a submission to two journals. And it’s not even 2 o’clock yet. It’s the effort that counts, I think, the attempt. And if I at least get that, then surely Camp Dana shall be appeased.