Leaping from tall poles in a single bound and other tales of Christian camp

superman-shieldThis week in a cove near Elizabethton, Tenn., some kid is going to jump off a 30-foot utility pole and live to tell about it.

No need to be alarmed. It’s a safety-harnessed gut check for youngsters (and the occasional adult). They put on a safety helmet, tie on a harness with an assistant holding the other end of the rope, and climb to the top of the pole. As they stand there, teetering, a trapeze bar hangs about six feet away.

The goal is simple: To launch themselves into the air and grab the bar. The hard part, the first time, comes just before jumping. Will the rope hold? Will the guy holding the rope do his job? Will I look stupid if I miss the bar? The answer to all is yes.

LeapOfFaithWeb
The leap of faith (but this one isn't at Doe River Gorge)

But why do it? The name of the activity offers a clue: the Leap of Faith. It’s one of the outdoorsy and out-of-the-ordinary activities featured at Doe River Gorge, a Christian ministry center.

“Our goal is to bring young people to maturity in their character, in their skills, in their understanding of God,” according to Director Terry Maughon. “We get kids who come for fun and adventure, but we want to expose them to Christ in a positive way, and we gear our programming to that.”

That kind of mission is shared by at least 10 Christian camping and conference centers within a 50-mile radius of Johnson City and hundreds more nationwide. The Christian Camp and Conference Association claims about 1,000 member facilities. (There are also about 300 Jewish camps, a dozen Muslim camps and a handful of other religious camps nationwide.)

Camps have changed from their heyday in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, when they were rustic and simple in every respect, from sleeping quarters (bunk beds in barracks-like dorms) to food (hot dogs and Tater Tots were typical) to programming (Bible classes, chapel, swimming and softball). These days, a camper is likely to find air-conditioned housing, salad bars, and options like high ropes challenge courses and wilderness expeditions.

“People want the experience of the woods, but require more stuff for that to happen,” said Jason Onks, executive director of Buffalo Mountain Camp and Retreat Center. It’s a challenge, he said, “to balance meeting those needs but not take away the experience of being outside. It’s partly the result of changes in expectations from campers, but mostly from parents.”

Faced with a different culture and shifting expectations, camps and conference centers need to be more creative than ever, said Mike Staires, director of communications and marketing services at the Christian Camp and Conference Association. While some facilities are thriving, average nationwide attendance is shrinking. CCCA members report about 6.5 million participants every year, down from 8 million earlier this decade.

Ramsey5
Ramsey Falls, at Buffalo Mountain Camp. Photo by Mark Peacock.

The campers themselves are changing too. More kids than ever grow up around cities, live with electronics and participate in organized activities, and so fewer feel at ease living close to nature. (“Our staff jokes about kids having ‘nature deficit disorder,’” Onks said.) Camp leaders see more spiritual diversity too.

 “Most kids who came 20 or 30 years ago didn’t question the Bible,” according to Brett Forney, promotions and development director at Appalachian Christian Camp in Unicoi. “But for the generation now, that’s not the thing. We’re not assuming they believe. A good number don’t go to church. Their parents just want them out of the house, and Christian camp is a safe, relatively economical option. So we’re getting back to basics, including more evangelistic aspects with some of them.”

Even so, she and other camp leaders say the constants of the camp setting make a unique impact on children and teens. It’s not about air conditioning or water slides.

“Kids may come the first time because of the toys,” Staires said, “but when they leave they say the most important part was talking with their counselors, meeting friends – those relational kinds of things.”

Camp provides a kind of “greenhouse environment,” he said. “Kids are in the Bible, having some quiet time, playing hard, spending the day together, not distracted by TV. But through the heat and exhaustion they are pushed together, faced with how to figure out how God fits in all this. They’re able to stop and think. It’s like someone pushes a pause button.”

Except when they jump off a very tall pole.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 27 June 2009.

After the tea parties

With taxation on American minds this week – what with income taxes due and the so-called tea parties protesting government spending – I looked through some old notes and came across a column from Sept. 29, 2007.

I couldn’t help noticing how the voices in this column spoke mainly about fairness and justice for poor people, not about safeguarding their own pocketbooks.

If Tennessee were ever to inaugurate an income tax, Lee Davis, a tax attorney in Johnson City, knows he’d pay more to the state than he does now.

But that prospect doesn’t bother him.

“I don’t mind paying my fair share,” he said in a phone interview. “I think our system would be better with an income tax. Too many laws are written to benefit those of great wealth.”

This is more a matter of faith than finances for Davis, who describes himself as “a lifelong Republican who believes in capitalism and free enterprise.”

A member of Central Church of Christ, Davis points to an incident in the New Testament when two very different groups tried to corner Jesus with a tax question: the Herodians, who supported the local king, a puppet of the Roman Empire, and the Pharisees, Jewish purists who thought cooperating with secular authorities meant flirting with heresy.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” they asked, figuring that any answer would land Jesus in trouble.

But he frustrated their trap – and confounded future commentators – with a deceptively simple reply: “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).

People have tried to translate those words into good practice ever since.

But whatever Jesus meant, Tennessee’s tax system isn’t it.

“There’s a connection with all the social-justice aspects of the Old and New Testaments,” said Bill Howell, the Middle Tennessee organizer for Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, a statewide coalition for tax reform. “There’s a general preference for the poor expressed in the Bible.”

But the Tennessee tax system works exactly opposite, taking the proportionally biggest bites from its poorest citizens. At 11.7 percent, the total state tax burden on the poorest families, who earn less than $14,000 a year, is nearly four times the rate as for the wealthiest Tennesseans. This is according to a 2003 report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C.

The main culprit is the sales tax, among the highest in the nation overall and the highest for groceries (even after recent changes). A loaf of bread, for instance, costs the same whether someone earns $14,000 or $140,000, and so high-income households spend only about four percent of their budgets on groceries. Low-income households, by contrast, spend about 21 percent.

The stark bottom line: In proportion to their income, the poorest citizens get hit hardest by taxes while the richest get away easiest.

“It isn’t morally fair,” Davis said. “We have a regressive tax system.”

On many issues, Davis sits on the opposite end of the political spectrum from the Rev. Don Beisswenger of Nashville, a Presbyterian minister, retired Vanderbilt Divinity School theologian and left-leaning activist who once spent six months in federal prison for staging a nonviolent protest at an Army base.

But they agree about the inequities of the Tennessee tax system.

“The Bible strongly accents the importance of compassion and care for the poor,” Beisswenger said this week. “The Jewish law had harvesters not take all the grain from the fields, so poor people could get what was left. Jesus identified with the poor, spoke for them. I think he was killed (partly) because he advocated for the poor against the religious and economic powers.”

In his eyes, the tax debates reflect two competing “myths” in American society.

“One is the Horatio Alger myth – work hard and do your own thing,” he said, referring to the 19th-century author whose stories promoted self-reliance as the key to financial success.

The other storyline emphasizes “community connections (and) a responsibility to care for people who are unable to take care of themselves.” He believes that view is more consistent with biblical teaching.

 “Jesus said his mission was to bring good news to the poor,” Beisswenger said. “The gap between the wealthy and poor needs to be dealt with. That’s a necessary condition for the celebration of Jubilee, for the reign of God.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 18 April 2009.

Easter: It isn’t kids’ stuff

ea-00004-ceaster-girl-in-rabbit-suit-with-eggs-postersEaster is for grown-ups.

That’s not to say Christmas is just for kids, but we can tell that story to children, start to finish. Babies are cute. Farm animals are usually cute. Angels singing in the sky are cool. (There’s the terrible interlude when King Herod orders the massacre of Bethlehem’s little boys, but that episode is easily avoided.) Christmas is mostly G-rated.

But the only way to talk about Jesus’ resurrection is to deal with a gruesome, unjust death. Easter is rated R – literally, if you recall Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ five years ago.

So for the sake of the kids, we bring on the bunnies. The children wave palm branches one week and the next hunt for eggs and wear new outfits. But in between there’s not much for them. The story is too brutal, and it’s too close for comfort.

Read or listen to the story of Jesus’ arrest, trials and execution in one sitting, focusing on what people around Jesus are doing, and you might notice how familiar it sounds. Change the names and a few details, and we could be hearing about some guy getting railroaded by the old-boy network in some mid-major city.

The disciples get confused and then angry and then scared. They want to do the right thing, but they can’t pull themselves together. Peter, the so-called rock, crumbles when confronted by the first-century equivalent of a teenage waitress.

The establishment leaders perform the familiar dance of self-preservation, huddling to engineer an exit for this popular and powerful outsider who threatens their tidy universe.

Perhaps they acted with intentional evil, but maybe they just fell into that long parade of people who convince themselves they are doing the right thing for the public. To those who are charged with maintaining order, any whiff of chaos smells like dung. Security and stability, they say, sometimes require distasteful methods, even if they contradict the values they claim to protect.

So the Jerusalem leaders, intelligent men, decided that Jesus simply had to go, even if he made some sense and raised the dead. (How paranoid and myopic they grew, plotting to murder not just Jesus but Lazarus, the man he raised, because he was a walking demonstration of Jesus’ abilities.)

They talked their way past “Thou shalt not kill” and a dozen more of their holy commandments, in the same way other intelligent people have talked their way into murder, torture, genocide and countless other horrors, all in the name of the people.

We’d recognize the Roman governor too. Pilate, the caretaker of troublesome fringe province, was intrigued by this mostly silent peasant standing before him. But as a minion of the Roman Empire, he discarded his humanity long enough to serve political practicality.

How ordinary and recognizable all this is. And yet, like it or not, this story emerged as one of the great hinges of history. Even our dating system says so.

Momentous events should happen in Rome or its latter-day equivalents – Beijing, Paris, London, New York, Washington – involving people with big offices, big bank accounts or big election returns.

But no. This story could be transplanted anywhere. It’s like the history of the world pivoted around the case of an itinerant preacher in, say, Knoxville.

That’s part of the story’s power: it’s not only for there and then, but also for here and now.

According to New Testament scholars Craig A. Evans and N.T. Wright, “The Gospels never say anything like, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore there is a life after death’ (not that many first-century Jews doubted that there was); or, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore we shall go to heaven when we die’ (most people believed something like that anyway); or better, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore we shall be raised at the last.'”

Writing in Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened, they point out that the gospels interpret Jesus’ resurrection as a “this-worldly” event that established Jesus as the Messiah, “the true Lord of the whole world.”

“The line of thought within the Gospels,” they observe, “is, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore God’s new world has begun, and therefore we, you, and everybody else are invited to be not only beneficiaries of that new world but participants in making it happen.'”

A story that immediate, that familiar, that deadly serious – even grown-ups struggle with it.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 11 April 2009.

Christians serve Passover seders. Is everyone OK with that?

seder-starter-kitThis is a story of two stories. One story is about redemption, freedom and new life from the hand of God. The other is about – well, much the same. The question is how much one story can be shared and changed to tell the other.

Next week is the Jewish Passover, the annual festival that retells and celebrates how the people of Israel were freed from slavery in Egypt. The centerpiece of the holiday is a ritual meal, the seder.

This year, Passover occurs during the Western Christian Holy Week, which is part of the other story. The two events don’t always coincide, but the timing is significant because, according to the Christian Scriptures, Jesus was crucified around Passover time and, while scholars dispute this detail, Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, when he instituted the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist, may have been a Passover seder.

It’s little wonder, then, that many Christian families and congregations have started to observe a seder, but with a twist: They not only tell the story of the Exodus but tie it to Christian teaching. Beyond the shared spiritual heritage, they also draw parallels between their own faith and the Exodus, with their common themes of redemption and renewal.

“Whenever I do this, it’s always strengthened my faith and helped me to realize again what God was willing to do bring me into his family,” said Arthur Joyce, pastor of the Johnson City Alliance Church. “It is a definitely a spiritual experience.”

Joyce started observing seders at home more than 20 years ago as a way to increase his family’s understanding of Christianity’s history. Then he started inviting congregation members to join them, and within a few years it grew into a regular, if not annual, congregational event. The meals have grown so popular that the church must take advance reservations, capping the attendance at 70 people because of the limitations of the church kitchen.

“I’ve had some folks who won’t miss it,” he said. “It’s a rewarding experience for them in that it draws them closer to God, to let them know how much he loves them.”

Joyce considers their ritual “an educating and worship experience.” They serve the Lord’s Supper at the end of each seder – “as Jesus did,” said Joyce. “We’re using his words and I make a definite point that this is what Jesus did at this part.”

Many Jewish people are comfortable with this Christian innovation. Joyce has talked informally with a rabbi who sounded supportive, and he knows of other churches where rabbis have led the meals.

But the thought of Christian seders troubles others, including Howard Stein, rabbi of the B’nai Sholom Congregation in Blountville.

“I’m very concerned about the phenomenon,” he said this week. “By introducing Christological ideas and imagery into the Jewish ritual, Christians are co-opting the Jewish observance and thus attempting to impose a Christian world view on a Jewish ceremony.”

Rather than helping Christians understand the symbolism and significance of the Passover, Stein said, the practice changes the observance to conform to Christian theology. The two faiths may share a religious heritage, he said, but we can’t forget they eventually separated.

“The early followers of Jesus were still part of Judaism, but there was this difference in belief in whether Jesus was the messiah,” he said. “That’s the central divide. Over time that difference caused them to diverge, and that raises a problem in injecting Jesus into the Passover ritual.”

There’s also a historical problem: Today’s elaborate seder tradition didn’t exist in Jesus’ time. The Passover meal was, by comparison, a simple affair. The more intricate ritual developed in the centuries after the Jerusalem temple was destroyed some 40 years after Jesus walked the earth.

“The seder we have now is modeled on the Greek-Roman symposium, a meal with instruction and discussion,” he said. “So placing too much symbolic weight on the various elements of the seder is historically inaccurate.”

If Christians want to understand the Passover, Stein advised, they should talk to Jewish friends or leaders, and attend a Jewish seder to listen and learn.

“Having a relationship depends on understanding each other’s beliefs,” he said. “The distinction goes back to how we look at Jesus, and looking at that distinction is important.”

The two stories share much, but not everyone thinks they can they share a meal.

 Johnson City Press, 4 April 2009.
Image: A “seder starter kit” available from the Christian online retailer Reign Forest Ministries, an online Christian retailer (http://www.reignforestshop.com/).

Evangelicals, housing prices and pure contempt

The NY Times Economix blog posted a piece summarizing some research suggesting that evangelical Christians — a term not defined very precisely — may weather housing bubbles better than most Americans at least in part because their beliefs encourage them to avoid excessive spending and that sort of thing. You can read it here. It’s an intriguing study, surely open to debate about any economic-theological correlation. (Will anyone mention possible analogies with the old Protestant work ethic and its impact on colonial American economic growth?)

But I was struck — no, shocked is a better word — by the tone in several of the comments so far: pure, unabashed contempt served with generous portions of stereotypes and cliches. Even the commenters who raised valid questions about the  study’s conclusions  were obviously holding their noses.

Insert a long sigh of frustration here. Beyond that, no comment.

Prayer, politics and those pesky hot-button issues

Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN1)
Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN1)

Phil Roe enjoys his new job. The U.S. Representative from Tennessee’s First District, a retired physician, wanted to join the debates in Washington over health care, and here he is. And if politics were baseball, he just moved to the major leagues.

But Thursdays are good days because that’s when he gets out of the Capitol Hill routine. In the evenings he usually flies home to Johnson City for the weekend. Before that, in the mornings, he joins other House members for an hour-long nonpartisan prayer breakfast.

“We all check our politics at the door,” Roe said during a phone conversation this week. “I really try to guard that time. We meet and get our week straightened out.”

Roe came away inspired from last month’s National Prayer Breakfast. President Obama spoke, but Roe was most impressed by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who converted to Roman Catholicism soon after leaving office in 2007.

“I had never heard him share his faith,” Roe said. “That was the best event I’ve attended (in Washington) so far. I left with my jaw hanging down.”

While his own faith is important — he and his wife, Pam, are members of Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church — Roe favors the language of “values” and “morals” when discussing his work in Congress, perhaps sensing that too much religious vocabulary is easily misunderstood or potentially divisive.

In political office, “you rely on the values you grew up with, (such as) just telling the truth,” he said. “You look at that in the totality of your lifetime.”

But it seems inevitable that such conversations will turn to hot-button topics such as abortion, which Roe adamantly opposes. That issue marked one of his first big Beltway moments.

He delivered a brief anti-abortion speech in the House on Jan. 21, the day between the presidential inauguration and the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. Afterwards, he was asked to “say a few words to a group of people” the following day. Expecting a relatively small gathering, he found himself addressing more than 200,000 people in the National Mall for the annual pro-life rally.

As an ob-gyn specialist Dr. Roe delivered thousands of babies, and he would like to see abortion debated and put to an up-or-down vote in Congress, but doubts that will happen in the wake of Supreme Court decisions.

He was troubled by last week’s order by President Obama to lift former President Bush’s ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Roe considers the research unnecessary and the surrounding political drama a distraction. He chooses his words carefully.

“A human embryo is how life begins, and that comes back to one of those core basic values: Do you consider this a human life or not?” he said. “That’s an argument that personally took it off the table for me. Where do you stop on the slippery slope?”

Obama set limits when he signed the federal funding order – prohibiting cloning embryos, for example – but Roe still thinks the president needlessly re-opened a door.

“To show you how creative people are, all the great breakthroughs have occurred with adult or umbilical-cord stem cells,” he said. “Science came right along and made breakthroughs. People feel strongly about the issue, and we didn’t need this.”

Given the current economic crisis and his own conservative politics, it’s no surprise that Roe talks about taxes and government spending in moral terms. He calls his belief in “smaller, leaner, more accountable government” one of his core values. (“My head is spinning with all the spending that goes on here.”)

A member of the House Veteran Affairs Committee, he considers it “a moral obligation to take care of the people who make us free.” Low taxes, he said, attract businesses to the state, which ultimately provide new jobs that can help people get out of poverty. And “the worst thing you can do” to people living on a fixed incomes – including the growing numbers of retirees in Northeast Tennessee – is to raise their taxes.

“I can’t do that to them,” he said. “When I was practicing medicine, I knew people who watched their spouses die and struggle to make payments. I would get afghans and apple butter. I have to look these people in the eye.”

Johnson City Press, 14 March 2009.

Entering Lent, secular and sacred

It was a just a coincidence that President Obama delivered his not-State-of-the-Union speech on Mardi Gras. Probably.
It was a just a coincidence that President Obama delivered his not-State-of-the-Union speech on Mardi Gras. Probably

All eyes were on Washington this week, when President Barack Obama spoke before Congress, mainly about the economy.

Surely it was a coincidence that his speech fell on Mardi Gras. I doubt the president scheduled the event with the Christian calendar in mind. Even so, the timing seems appropriate.

Our collective financial Mardi Gras is over. Now it’s time for some discipline. Figuratively speaking, the nation has entered a kind of secular Lenten season.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Now and then we need to be reminded that it’s not healthy to always get what we want, when we want it. Grown-ups understand the joys of delayed gratification.

The actual Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” is the day before Ash Wednesday, the start of that 40-day season of fasting known as Lent. Mardi Gras originated as a practical ritual of cleaning out cupboards before fasting began but, human nature being what it is, the day evolved into an excuse for a blow-out party. People are funny that way.

Ash Wednesday was established 15 centuries ago by Pope Gregory the Great. As repentant believers entered the cathedral, he would mark their foreheads with ashes and remind them of the biblical symbol of repentance, sackcloth and ashes, and of their mortality, quoting the book of Genesis: “You are dust, and to dust you will return.”

Irony is at work here. While Christians have their foreheads ritually smeared with soot, they might recall these words from Jesus himself: “When you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. … But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:16-18).

That’s why many Christians refuse to observe Ash Wednesday.

Someone must know a good explanation for a church practice that apparently flies in the face of Jesus’ teaching. I heard one minister explain it by saying the act is itself a reminder to Christians that they are imperfect even when they try to obey Christ. We’re laughing at ourselves, he said.

As with many other practices, not all Christians observe Lent or do so in the same way. It’s more common among the mainline denominations, such as the Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran churches. But it’s an ancient Christian tradition, dating back at least to the second century.

Specific practices have changed over the centuries, but the purpose has remained constant: self-examination and repentance for sins, expressed by self-denial and other disciplines. It leads to Easter, so Lent also carries a strong sense of preparation and anticipation. (Lent began this week in the Western church calendar; the Eastern Orthodox season starts next week.)

The name, by the way, is derived from the same word as “lengthen” – that is, Lent comes when the days are getting longer. (Now there’s a good idea. If people want to change their lives, they probably stand a better chance when days grow brighter and warmer than in the depressing dead of winter, on New Year’s Day.)

The 40-day period recalls the length of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, but the number is associated with other dramatic (and traumatic) biblical events, such as the 40 days and nights of rain during Noah’s flood and 40 years of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness.

But Lent is not about punishment. It’s about discipline, about the shaping of souls. It is about facing up to the ways we’ve gone off track and doing what we can to recover what we’ve lost or repair what we’ve damaged. It’s about reflecting on what is really important and lasting.

In a word, observing Lent is about turning and returning to God.

And it’s about anticipation, knowing that self-discipline and sacrifice today can make tomorrow that much sweeter. Again, the joys of delayed gratification. Lent leads to Easter.

(Johnson City, Tenn., Press, 28 Feb 2009)