The single greatest spiritual experience of my life was my time at Camp Lutherlyn. In the years since, I have talked to many kids who went to “church camp”, my older sons among them. There are always places where kids go to spend a week in the great outdoors, maybe read a little Bible, maybe do some crafts, probably swim in a lake. They might have counselors who are low-cost imported help such as European teenagers who were looking for a summer in America. I’m not sure such counselors have thought much about God and wonder if they have even read the Gospels.
I can say with absolute certainty that none of the experiences I have ever heard of come close to the magnificent experience I had in my summers at Lutherlyn. On my first time there is was just ten. There was of course that minute where Mom left me behind and I was left in the care of a counselor who was kind of a rough looking man with several tattoos. And there was that first night in the bunk away from home and nothing was familiar. That counselor was an older Navy man. He proved to be a friendly guy who has some interesting tales to tell about being at sea as he watched the starry skies above the ocean. The gentle spiritual envelopment that took place that following week and which was duplicated over the next five years was as close as I ever came to being in the hand of God or at least in hands of God’s people.
Most of my counselors over the years were seminary or pre-seminary students from Thiel or Gettysburg Colleges. They were young and, in that age of doubt, they were believers who had struggled with the same issues many campers had encountered from the residue of the times. Men like Jim Tipton treated us as emerging adults and challenged us to think and act according to the teaching of Christ. The counselors cared about us and about their work.
The genius at Lutherlyn was the founder of the camp, a Pastor Schaulus. He knew how to combine a rhythm of the unexpected and fun with the anticipated and ritualistic to somehow create an atmosphere of awe and joy and challenge that appealed adolescents.
Sure we had to clean the cabin every morning. We also got to swim and played volleyball to the point of exhaustion in the afternoon. We sang, and we sang some more – all kinds of songs. We were assigned to “tribes” or “colleges” that gave a spice of friendly competition to many of the sports of the week.
To me the high points of the day were the variety of spiritual venues we had in the evening. We might walk up to Chapel Hill – where a large cross on a hilltop was lit with the light of sinking sun. We might go to Chapel Rock – where all the campers would have a walk of about a half a mile through wild-like woods then arrive at a beautiful natural location for meditation. And at least once a week we’d go to the side of the lake to have some thought-invoking vespers.
At the end of the week, there was always a large bonfire. This was a service to set us on our way back out to the world. Pastor Schaulus was often there to light the fire he and he always quoted the same poem as he lit the kindling: “Kneel always when you light a fire and thank God for his gifts.” We were gently encouraged to be better people for the week spent there. There was no heavy hand. We were filled with an extra dose of a word that was used with too cheaply in the 60’s but had a real value around that fire. Love.
I do not know if the experience he provided could be duplicated today. Certainly it would require that a camper abandon all electronic devices for a week, and that may be too high a price to pay even to come as close as I ever came to hearing the voice of God and feeling his hand on my shoulder.