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During our last two Sunday services, folks here at St. Clement’s showed a great sense of adventure by becoming participants in dramatic enactments of the liturgy readings. I was on preaching duty elsewhere last week, but I watched the livestream later and may I just say, wow!  Those trust exercises! Thank you for your willingness to explore new ways to express the messages of scripture. This week you’re allowed to stay in your pew. But I am going to ask you to once again stretch yourselves - at least mentally. 

Last year our Summer Camp Sunday featured the story of Artaban, the imagined fourth wiseman after whom the Anglican camp on Gambier Island was named. We all made friendship bracelets as we clustered around our campfire and told the marvellous tale of Artaban’s quest to give his sapphire, ruby and pearl to the Christ child. This year, though, I wonder if we can expand our notion of Camp Sunday somewhat. It will mean stretching to encompass the tension between those fun camping experiences we choose and those unfun ones we don’t.

Over the course of decades, leaving the city behind to go camping at Artaban has been for me a return to the familiar. If we are fortunate, we all have in our life a place that calls to us again and again, whether it is a family cabin, a favourite camping site in a provincial park, a camp or retreat centre, or maybe a granny or granddad or auntie or cousin who live out of town. This special spot becomes layered with memories formed over the years; you can almost catch glimpses of your younger self, friends of yore, or the spirits of lost loved ones around every corner. So today we celebrate with joy and gratitude these oases in our lives; islands of spiritual renewal and reconnection with Community, Creator and Creation.

Then there are the camps we don’t choose, where nothing calls to us and nothing is familiar. Camps we are forced to endure because home is no longer an option. Refugee camps, for example, where millions of people currently live in limbo, unable to move forward or back.  Or the Israelites from our Exodus reading, perhaps, wandering from campsite to campsite in the desert, having escaped oppression in Egypt but often unhappy to the point of rebellion in the desert.

And I think, too, about those wrenching times in our life when we are suddenly thrust into a foreign landscape that bears no resemblance to the life we were living just minutes earlier. We are now in a new country, carved out by the landslide of a terrible medical diagnosis, a sudden death, or perhaps the unexpected loss of a job or a marriage. Suddenly we are forced to set up camp and survive in a new, entirely unfamiliar and unwelcome terrain. Only very gradually do we find our way home again. It feels like there is little to celebrate about these kind of camps.

And somewhere in the middle are those camping experiences we embark upon by choice, but that come with some temporary challenges of one sort or another … I am thinking of Kuzi and her family on Wednesday,  happily eating birthday cake while camped out in a new suite that is awaiting beds, chairs, and other furniture.  Thanks to Audrey and Philip, there was a table to put the cake on! Those of you who have made a big move can testify to the vast amount that must be accomplished to get permanently established in a new city, country or continent.

It can be hard to hold all these different kinds of camps in tension with each other, ranging as they do from valleys of delight to islands of sorrow. But  perhaps - just perhaps - we can find some areas of common ground.

Whether our camping experience is riven through with delight or with despair, I think it can help reconnect us with the essentials of our humanity, and that’s a good thing, even when it is born out of pain. Sitting on the sundeck of a summer cabin and glorying in birdsong is a wonderful gift; but people around the world also connected as they never had to their backyard birds during the pandemic lockdown, when we all had to retreat from our usual lives and set up camp somewhat anxiously at home. Songs and signs from nature are amplified in their impact and take on a whole new resonance when we are in camping mode. We look to the stars and feel God’s immensity in a new way when we are away from the artificial lighting of our homes and cities; we look to the night sky for God’s shining presence, too, when we are in the darkness of a great grief that has taken us away from the usual ground-level distractions of errands and shopping and work and television.

One of the other things I love about camping in the great outdoors is the way plain old water becomes so special.  We are so accustomed to thoughtlessly squandering water when we are brushing our teeth, or filling a bath, or letting the water run in the kitchen sink when we are wiping down the counter. But when you’re camping,  such wanton disregard means you either run out of water, or are forced to lug more of it from the tap half a mile away, so you treat it carefully. You see it through newly appreciative eyes and notice how precious it is. You don’t throw out half a bottle of unused drinking water; you use it to brush your teeth or water the dishes or wash the sand off your kids’ feet. Stripping your surroundings down to the point where the basics are valued and nothing is wasted is a deeply satisfying exercise. Ironically, taking away the usual overabundance and needless excess leaves me feeling enriched rather than depleted.

And I think we notice the so-called "little things" or "everyday things," too, when we are camping on the island of grief.  We cherish the smallest, simplest things when we are mourning a family member or a job we loved or the home we raised our kids in. We keep by our bed the book a loved one was reading when they died.  We are so grateful for the how-are-you-doing phone call from a former colleague when we are still navigating the tricky waters after retirement. We dig out a few bulbs from the garden of our family home so that the same yellow daffodils can brighten up the patio of our new apartment with sunny memories.  Camping helps us to be so much more conscious of what is important in our lives, and what is mere busyness or window dressing.

We see people differently, too, when we are in camping mode and thrown together with others in a way we are unaccustomed to. I long remember a CBC radio interview with Jerri Nielsen, an emergency room physician who in 1998 was stationed with a year-long Antarctic expedition. It could, I suppose, be described as the ultimate camping adventure - for seven months of the year, no airplanes are able to fly in or out of the area due to the frigid winter conditions; the station and its crew must be entirely self-sufficient. Very alarmingly, during that winter, Dr. Neilsen diagnosed her own breast cancer and the story of her self-treatment while trapped on the icy, isolated continent later riveted people around the world. What I most remember from the interview, though, was how deeply she learned to value each member of that small station crew. Each had skills or gifts that were uniquely their own; whether it was carpentry, cooking, first aid, research or good humour, everyone brought something important - and, in that lonely environment, irreplaceable - to the table.

I think we, too, can notice and appreciate unexpected gifts in others when we have just a few mismatched folks around our campfire and are attentive to them in a way we perhaps wouldn’t be when surrounded by our usual circles of familiar colleagues and companions at home.

I wonder what those disciples in today’s gospel encountered when they obeyed Jesus’ command to get out of their comfort zone and to spread out to different towns, preaching the good news, healing the sick, taking nothing in their pack and trusting they could  make camp at the home of a welcoming stranger.  What simple essentials did they appreciate anew? What encounters moved them deeply? What gifts did they find in their travelling companions, and what gifts did they find in themselves?

For we will find or re-find gifts in ourselves, given the opportunity to step away from our usual routines and to set up camp - even if that camp is simply a folding chair on the beach for a stolen afternoon away from work and chores and cell phones and email. We don’t have to go the south pole to learn we are creative, resilient beings, made in God’s image and here to do God’s work.

Sometimes we reconnect with this truth by going on holiday retreat long enough that our thoughts settle and we can tap into the deep pool of our inherited and inherent wisdom. Sometimes we relearn creativity and resilience the hard way - at that wretched campsite on the island of pain and loss. In today’s reading from the Letter to the Romans, Paul writes that we should in fact boast of our sufferings, because - in his famous words - "suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."

These days, most of us do our level best to steer well clear of hackneyed expressions that elicit annoyance rather than provide comfort. We don’t tell people to look for the silver lining in the face of their sudden unemployment ("Hey, now you finally have more time for the gym!"). We don’t tell them to trust that God had a reason for taking their loved one prematurely, or that God never gives us anything we don’t have the strength to handle.  And Paul’s words to the Romans can feel like they veer in that direction. And yet, while I wouldn’t merrily tell someone who has just received terrible news not to worry because it’s well-known that "suffering builds endurance," we are all aware of people, perhaps ourselves, who have endured desperate trials and have found unexpected meaning and grace woven throughout them. Sometimes those are the gifts we bring back from our forced travel to that foreign land, gifts that can continue to light our path once we are at home, and give light to others.

So camping, it seems, can be a spiritual practice - whether it is a camp we choose, or a camp we don’t. As Christians, we are called to stand beside people on the margins, to recognize the needy in our midst, to welcome the stranger. It is hard to do that if we disappear into a comfortably insulating life that doesn’t challenge our perceptions, shake us out of our rut, or help us cross paths with new people. The author of The Way Under Our Feet: The Spirituality of Walking writes:

The early Christian communities called themselves strangers and foreigners, aliens and exiles who "have no lasting city, but [are] looking for the city that is to come" (Heb: 13-14). When Christianity became mainstream after the conversion of Emperor Constantine … something vital went missing, and we must always remain alert to the danger of losing our prophetic edge [p. 89]

God calls us to be campers. So whether it is on your deck or on a dock, in a park or on a peak, I am wishing all of here a summer camping experience that is peaceful - but not so comfortable that we are lulled into moral passivity. One that stirs up happy memories - but also pushes us to new adventures. An experience that gets us away from the crowd, and into new or renewed relationship with the people in front of us.

Above all, may our camp time bring us into refreshed relationship with the God whose love is woven through our very being and through all of Creation. "In returning and rest we shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be [our] strength," God told us through the prophet Isaiah.

May we rest in God our maker in the weeks ahead, and as we move through whatever terrain life has in store for us, may we walk in trust, knowing that God is with us - every step of the way.