What I learned at youth camp

The Freemont County Youth Camp is a collection of rustic buildings at the end of the pavement above Sinks Canyon. Its oldest building was erected in 1948. Other cabins were added, one by one, through the loving sweat of unsung heroes. This beloved site has served generations of campers in the years since.

The camp’s most recent guests were 10 dozen Lutheran youth and their counselors from across Wyoming and the Nebraska panhandle. I was privileged to be one of them.

As with countless camp experiences around our fair state, this annual gathering has a history that reaches back decades. The most senior kitchen volunteer wistfully remembers when one of the balding, middle-aged teachers first attended as an awkward and uncertain preteen.

It is marvelous to observe how faithful men and women, recently embroiled in a world war, spent both capital and care on people yet unborn. Still more encouraging is to look upon the wholesome fruits of their labor in the hopeful faces of boys and girls today.

Camp is a world of rocks and water and fire — solid things, real things that ground lives in the good earth and its creator. These elements present unlimited possibilities while simultaneously imposing strict boundaries. Consider the million ways to enjoy a mountain lake while always respecting the very real dangers of the frigid water.

The digital world lies to us. It pretends to offer the gifts of the real world without its dangers. It draws us into a fantasy that has no reality. No matter how realistic the pixilated world of video games may seem, the falsities of the virtual world are exposed by skinned knees, goose bumps and gravestones.

By bringing us and our children back to these elemental realities, our minds are cleared of the cobwebs of modernity. With each switchback up the mountain, our cell phones lose signal bars. Until that point, we had not realized that these invisible tethers to the outside world were as hard as the iron bars of a prison cell.

Camp opens the door to a new world, free and grounded. It is not an alien world. It is the real world. In this microcosm of several acres, campers have the opportunity to remember what life is about. Strangers are thrown together in time and space and, over the course of days, find sweet society.

In the opening paragraph of Thomas Paine’s classic “Common Sense,” he elegantly calls his readers to understand the truth of society: “Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.”

Government is a necessary force to restrain wickedness. But its restraints are only legitimate when they are in the service of a free and wholesome society. Camp rules are outlined during the opening assembly not to stifle the human spirit, but to free it. They are the parameters in which children learn their relationship to their creator. In this, they discover one another.

Under the watchful and loving eye of parents and counselors, boys and girls cultivate manhood and womanhood. They come to understand that family is both a safe haven in which to grow and also a beautiful goal toward which to strive. It is the basic building block of society preserved for them to enjoy.

The dynamics of love and family, parents and children, are as solid and real as the rocks, water and fire. They offer limitless possibilities within unyielding boundaries. Parents are obligated to invite the next generation into the possibilities while pointing out the boundaries. Both make happiness a reality.

Affections stirred at camp occasionally mature into marriages and children of the next generation. Most often, the bonds of friendship are simply a step along the path to maturity. Persons are to be respected — body and soul — not objectified and used. The beauty of this growing awareness exposes the ugly perverseness that prevails in the counterfeit culture at the bottom of the mountain.

Paine wrote that governments are produced by our wickedness. This does not mean that government is wicked. It means that people are. And it means that this wickedness must be restrained because it threatens good and wholesome society. It is a barrier to obtaining the noblest desires of the human heart.

The more clearly the goodness of human society comes into view, the more obvious it is that wickedness is no arbitrary and subjective judgment. The true desires of the human heart for wholesome society are directly threatened by every perversity.

For this reason, building a society safe and good for families requires not only lifting up the good, but keeping out the evil. For a blissful week, parents and counselors were aided in this task by escaping beyond the reach of technology. Corrosive images and messages meant to rob children of their vision of the good were temporarily held at bay.

After lights-out, parents and counselors could rest more easily, knowing that the day’s work was not being undone by Hollywood productions meant to sexualize children for profit. The positive effects of this media blackout were obvious. How can we not give thought to protecting vulnerable children from these same threats at the bottom of the mountain?

Creating a safe environment for the next generation requires both offense and defense — both open spaces and fences. Through the week, these truths became ever clearer.

As we retraced the switchbacks down the mountain, technology’s chains reached out to reclaim its escaped prisoners. The signal bars that grew on our cell phones threatened to bar the windows and doors that had recently been burst open. Various electronic sounds demanded attention.

Although the news was urgent and fresh, what most amazed me was how little had changed. After a million breathless words since we had left the conversation, everyone still seemed to be saying the same thing. It was heartening to know that the world did not collapse in our absence. That’s a lesson that should be long remembered.

Even while we were learning that frantic participation in the cacophony is not as important as it once seemed, this should not make us quietists. On the contrary, today it is clearer than ever that we must speak and speak effectively.

We must continue to teach our own children well and resist the pervasive perversions of the day. We must encourage our neighbors to raise their children as future spouses for our own children. We are in this together. The happiness of our children and our neighbors’ children meld into one.

We must also plainly call out the open wickedness of those who would abuse and pervert our children for personal gain. They work their evil in school boards, counsel chambers and state houses across the land. Under the guise of freedom, they aim to enslave. With the promise of happiness, they work misery.

The society of summer camp should not be an idyllic oasis visited once a year. Coming down the mountain should not be a surrender to the swamp of evil. It is, rather, an advance of goodness into evil, a reclamation of territory for the joy and well-being of future generations.

As undaunted men and women built a cabin on the mountain in 1948, we have the task of building a society in our day. We owe it to the young man and woman who long for family but need our help. It is our solemn duty to children yet unborn.

Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.


More In Opinions