Monday, June 24, 2013

Sweet Taste of Freedom

I spent last weekend in a place that changed my life.

I first arrived there on a hot Sunday evening in June, 1975, suitcase and bed roll in hand. I was a thin, painfully shy, quietly angry nineteen-year-old, between sophomore and junior years of college.

I was feeling stuck in more ways than I could count: constrained by family circumstance, constricted by fragile finances, unsure about major, direction, or why I’d signed on to spend my summer in a muggy, unfamiliar place in a muggy, unfamiliar state.

I’d promised I’d never go back to the little Christian camp I’d been part of for the last dozen summers. I’d seen God’s grace and provision there, and I loved the expansive view of Catskill mountains, bright New York sky, rolling cow pastures. But I’d also seen more than I needed of a social construct that said “no” to me at every turn, while guys I’d grown up with were handed privilege and opportunity they hadn't earned, sometimes didn't even want.  

I was tired of being treated as "less than".

Title IX had passed three years earlier, and that June regulations on enforcement were about to be released, but in my little world it was still the case that the least capable, least committed man would be given deference before the most capable, most committed woman.

My plan, that long-ago summer, had been to find an exotic job in an exotic place, and never set foot in a Christian camp again. I needed an adventure, an opportunity to grow. I needed someone to trust me, and I needed a way to shake free of the simple-minded script my culture had drafted for the female follower of Christ.

But the internet had not yet been invented, and exotic jobs were hard to come by. I applied for everything I could find and by the start of May had only one option left: go home to share my grandmother’s mobile home and hope for a job in the local Rite Aid.

I had been invited to apply for a job at Sandy Cove, had ignored the invitation. Another Christian camp? No thank you. 

But just days before the end of the spring semester, I sought out the director to see if there were any openings left.

Canoe instructor.

And two or three weeks of out-of-camp canoe trips.

Maybe some backpacking? And could I help lead an experimental three day horse trip?

Looking back, I marvel. Who would I be if that avenue forward hadn't opened?

I don’t have room to tell all I saw, learned, and still treasure from that summer and the next. The exhilaration of heading out into open water with ten girls, six canoes, and one fellow leader.

The excitement of ten days on the Appalachian Trail with two women I admired and a dozen counselors-in-training. 

The amazement when confronting challenges along the way: they trust me to do this? Me?

The growing sense of freedom in a setting where girls and young women were allowed, even encouraged, to be funny, loud, competitive, in charge.

My months at Sandy Cove were among the most formative of my life, and certainly the most freeing. 

Two years ago I was invited to the first ever “Camp Sandy Cove Girls Camp 70s Staff Reunion.” I said no – for many reasons: I only worked there two summers. It was over three decades ago. I hadn’t stayed in touch. I don’t do reunions. Ever.

But God has been teaching me much about what it means to have my life woven into the lives of others, and when invited to the second annual reunion, last year, I overcame misgivings and went.

And went back again, this year, for the third annual reunion – now more “retreat” than reunion.

Even now, when we gather, there’s an unexpected sense of freedom: freedom to laugh, sing old camp songs at odd times, jump in and lead, or sit back and watch. During a rowdy, creative team game, the group competed without apology, challenged the leader, stretched the rules, improvised freely.

Not all who gather know each other, since some were there during different summers, or worked in different parts of camp, but with new friends and old, the protocol of superficial conversation is easily suspended. Conversations move quickly to issues of substance: What has God been teaching you? What’s been hard? How are you growing?

One of the group challenged us all, last January, to work toward a 5k run, a way to invite us to examine our stewardship of physical health. When do fifty and sixty-something women talk honestly about weight, exercise, ways we use food to deaden frustration, stuff down our sadness, hide from our failures? Yet there we were, chugging up and down hill, some walking, some jogging, a few dancing circles around the rest, while conversations bloomed, about disordered patterns of eating, about places we’re stuck in our efforts to get fit, about ways those who are strong in this can help and encourage those who are weak.

And we’re all weak, aren't we? Women I was in awe of, years ago, are quick to share their places of struggle. Conversations turn freely to areas of need, acknowledged failure, places of doubt, discouragement, uncertainty.

And we’re all strong, aren't we? In a setting where there are no pre-assigned roles, gifts bubble up to serve the group, and everyone has something to offer.

This morning, looking around the circle gathered for a simple chapel service, I found myself giving thanks for the witness of so many strong, joyful, fiercely faithful women.

The funniest women I know were in that circle.

Some of the most adventurous.

Some of the most fit.

Some of the most generous.

Certainly the most encouraging.

How many lives have been touched by gifts brought to light during those fruitful years of girls-only ministry?

How many lives are touched even now by women in that circle: teachers, coaches, pastors, camp directors, lawyers, writers, nurses, mothers, grandmothers, faithful friends.

And then there's the larger circle, the women who weren't with us, readying their own camps for the first week of the season, training indigenous missionaries and pastors on distant continents, serving and caring in ways too many to mention.  

But here’s the question that traveled home with me:

How many other women, other gifts, have been smothered, stifled, shoved aside, in a Christian culture that even now measures women as “less than”?

What enriching perspectives have been thoughtlessly dismissed?

How much creativity and joy has the church, and surrounding world, lost?

Savoring the freedom of a lovely weekend, remembering the freedom of those summers in the seventies, I find myself wondering how to carry that freedom with me, and how to offer it to others, not just women, but men, children, teens, adults, those who follow Christ and those who see the Christian faith as a narrow box to be avoided at all costs.

In a paternalistic, legalistic, highly-authoritarian world, Jesus said "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

I catch glimpses of that freedom, and I want more of it. Not just for myself, but for all of us: freedom to be the people we were made to be, to use the gifts we were given to use, to shred the predetermined scripts and enter the adventure God has in store for those who follow him.