Well I’m home again at Satis House, after spending a Memorial Day Weekend away at Camp Sawtooth. It was my first time there, and I’m so glad I went up. It is a Presbyterian camp tucked away in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, about 20 minutes west of Ketchum–the town where the Sun Valley lodge and ski resort are located, for those of you non-Idahoans reading this.
The camp directors always welcome volunteers to come up for an opening work weekend. Since camp is only open half the year, we needed to spruce it up, clear out the fallen trees that came down over the winter, and get it ready for weeks of campers to come this summer.
Being at camp reminded me both of the few summers my church youth group went to camp at Camp David Junior in the Olympics at home, and also of the Presbyterian camp that I served as a counselor for two summers in college–Rainbow Glacier Camp, outside of Haines, Alaska. “Camp” is universally a magical place–no matter where it is or when one goes there. Camp is one of those “thin” places where the distance between humanity and the sacred narrows, and where we get a glimpse of life in the kingdom of God. I love how a group of strangers can come together as the body of Christ, united in service to God and the church; how those people can take a few acres of wooded wilderness, and turn it into heaven on earth. I think camp is the place where I have most experienced life abundant–life to the fullest.
Y’all know I’ve been doing a lot of work on my own house, so it felt good to get out of the valley and contribute to something larger. My neighbor thought it was funny that I chose to spend my holiday weekend doing more manual labor, but I was really glad to make the trip and experience some time at camp. It was more than the projects though–it was really about encouraging the camp directors as they head into another vibrant season of camp, and of working with many other volunteers who also love camp and are committed to its ministry. I was actually fortunate because I got assigned pretty easy jobs: Saturday I was on fire watch, burning piles of brush on a bonfire and coming away smelling like campfire (which it really wouldn’t be a camp experience without coming away smelling like fire, right??); and Sunday I got to limb about 8 trees about 8 feet high, so now when people walk to the bathroom they don’t have to bring a machete and fight their way through the thick pine branches.
Sunday morning was particularly enjoyable as we celebrated Pentecost Sunday with worship in the memorial chapel, built by the parents of a young woman who had enjoyed camp as a child and who succumbed to cancer at age seventeen in 1955. Being as it was Memorial Day weekend, and as someone who works with the dying, it caused me to pause and to think about what redemptive fruits will develop in the future from the seemingly senseless tragedies that people suffer every day. I’m sure losing their talented and beautiful young daughter was unimaginably painful for that family. And yet, they built a house of God in her memory–a place where the young and old alike have worshipped the Lord while at camp for the past 60 years, and will continue to do so for decades to come.
In a similar experience, on Monday morning when I left camp to drive home, I stopped and visited the Ketchum Cemetery. The writer Ernest Hemingway died in Ketchum in 1961 and is buried in this cemetery. I had visited his grave once before, but I wanted to stop again–both to see his grave but also just to wander around, acknowledging the graves of many veterans buried there in particular, each of whose grave was decorated with an American flag stuck in the ground above it. I sense that I am developing an odd relationship to cemeteries. Again, as a hospice chaplain, the form of worship I conduct most frequently is that of the funeral–a gathering of witnesses to acknowledge both a life lived and a life died. Nowadays people either are not religious enough to want a funeral, and/or plan on being cremated, so there is no graveside service to conduct. But occasionally I do lead a very traditional funeral, begun with a chapel service and followed by a procession to the cemetery and a graveside committal. You would think that being someone who spends a lot of time with the dying, and who offers many prayers of commendation for the deceased, that I wouldn’t want to spend anymore time with the dead or in cemeteries than I already do. And yet, there I was, called to the graveyard for a moment of quiet reflection. I appreciated just being able to walk around, reading the names and dates on headstones, wondering what life was like for those people who died many decades ago; wondering how their families grieved when they died. One grave was for a baby girl who died at ten days old. There were many graves of veterans from World War II, and even some from as far back as WWI, as Hemingway himself was. I wonder how those mothers reacted when they received that knock on their door and were informed that their son had been killed in the war. So many stories, buried in that sacred ground–another thin place where life on earth ends and the eternal life begins.
Media vita in morte sumus. In the midst of life we are in death.