“Do you want to take a selfie together in the morning?”
It was late, more than an hour after lights-out time, and he whispered to me from across the room (that is to say, 5 feet away). I smiled, in spite of my exhaustion. I did not want him to get into trouble, but the significance of the request was not lost on me. Talking after lights-out could mean less pool time the next day. He knew that this was his last opportunity to ask, since I was leaving in the morning, and it was evidently important enough to take the risk. A selfie is when a person takes a picture of him or herself. Youth today are so self-sufficient (or alone?) that they do not need anybody else, not even to snap an awesome picture. The selfie has become a way for young people to tell their own story, on their own terms. I felt like he was inviting me into that story. My eyes got a little wet.
To be fair, this may have been due to the odor. We had 3 men and 4 teenage boys crammed into a room the size of a walk-in closet, and it was the sixth night of camp. That is where new smells are invented. Next door, there were 8 girls and 1 adult woman in a comparatively large room. The two pastors were living in luxury, sleeping on air mattresses in the large gathering room (through which everyone had to walk on midnight bathroom journeys). I could not hear them through the wall, but apparently at least two of the girls were talking in their sleep.
This young man was not talking in his sleep, though. He was voicing an important request. “It’s almost like having siblings,” he had said earlier that day when I asked what it feels like to be at camp. For an only child living with a single parent, there is great meaning to a selfie that is not alone. I did not want to disappoint him or shush him into silence. But I was leaving at 5:00 in the morning to make my flight from Reno, and that was a little early for selfies.
I had arrived two days earlier, and the drive up through the mountains from Reno was beautiful, especially the moment when I came over the 7,000-foot pass and gazed down on the Lake Tahoe basin. It was over 100 degrees in Reno, and I was not looking forward to leaving Lake Tahoe, where it had been in the mid-80s during the day and low 60s at night. The campers would soon be returning to the Sacramento area, where it was an even more oppressive 115 degrees. The drought was terrible, even at a paradise like Lake Tahoe, which was a shocking 7 feet below normal.
He voiced a melancholy “Oh…” when I whispered my departure time. But I assured him that I would send a copy of the picture from our kayaking adventure of the night before. It was the mystery trip, so called because the youth were not told in advance what it would be. It turned into a beautiful evening for kayaking. Our group of 18 plus 2 guides meandered along the coast of the lake until twilight fell. It was July 1, and the full moon rose low in the sky as we paddled back towards shore, just after sunset. It was also the night after the closest modern conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, believed by some to be the star that led the magi to Bethlehem in 2-3 BC. Even in twilight, with the full moon blazing off the lake, the conjunction shone forth through a light cloud cover.
The bulk of the group members were weaving back and forth, occasionally ramming into each other, and carrying on with some raucous chatter. My kayaking companion and I (they were 2-person kayaks) hung back with the other two men and one of the guides. It was a gorgeous evening, warm for that early in summer, and we were soaking in the beauty of it all, enjoying some idle conversation about life and the cosmos. Our guide offered to take the picture as the moon shone behind us. It wasn’t a selfie, but it would have to suffice.
“We hope you will get to know more about God so that you can better get to know God.”
One of the pastors said this as she began a lesson on the Trinity. It was, after all, confirmation camp. Much of the daily schedule was devoted to program time, when the group studied and discussed Christian beliefs, the history of their tradition, and some of the particularities of the United Methodist Church. But the lessons were not geared toward indoctrination, but rather exploration. The pastors were intentionally inviting the young people into a relationship with God. Curiosity and engagement were valued over correct answers, so questions were welcomed at every turn. The material was presented in multiple formats, with tactile learning, particularly art, incorporated into every lesson. The lessons were framed by Wesley’s quadrilateral: scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. These were held in balance throughout the time at camp. They discussed and processed their experiences, applied tradition (especially the Social Policies of the UMC) to their lives, and dug into biblical texts.
The two pastors are longtime friends, and each has been serving in her respective congregation for more than a decade, unusually long tenures in the United Methodist Church. They both have considerable experience in camping ministry. They chose to conduct confirmation training in the camp setting because classes simply were not working. Students were frequently absent, and parents often wanted their children confirmed while assigning low priority to getting them to lessons or supporting them through the confirmation process. An 8-day camp allowed for uninterrupted study of key teachings, along with informal reflection time, in the context of a nurturing Christian community. Most importantly, the young people were away from the pressures and expectations of their home environment, so they had an opportunity to explore their own beliefs.
This was the second bi-annual confirmation camp. The first camp two years previous was a magnificent success in terms of student engagement in the material and their unprecedented enthusiasm for the life and ministry of the church after confirmation. The recent confirmands have been initiating service projects, attending worship regularly, and helping to promote confirmation camp. Two of them were back at camp serving as CITs (counselors in training). The four CITs were juniors and seniors in high school, and their roles were to serve as small group leaders, lead many of the activities, and supervise the younger confirmation students throughout the camp experience.
When I asked the students what was the most challenging thing about the camp experience, they had two primary responses: separation from their technological devices and the struggles of living together in the camp environment. One camper even noted that these two go together. At camp, they are unable to escape the intensity of community living for the refuge of their phone, tablet, or computer. It is difficult living in cramped quarters, and they were unaccustomed to having to accommodate others. They got on each other’s nerves sometimes. They were forced to step around (or on) other people’s belongings. They emphasized the importance of being open and accepting above all else, but they were not always welcoming. They even said hurtful things to each other.
It was not some idyllic community. It was messy.
These young people were trying to find their place in the present community, explore their own identity, and determine whether or not they wanted to follow this Jesus guy. There was a strong sense that they were doing this on their own terms, without the constant expectations of parents and siblings.
They had, in essence, been asked to pose for various pictures throughout their life, and now they were being encouraged to take a selfie. They could tell their own story, on their own terms. The question was, who do you want in your selfie? Members of your church community? Adult mentors from camp? Will Jesus be in your selfie?
Thunder rolled in the distance as we walked down to the lake. The weather gave us a merciful 30-minute window, so we hustled down the wide sandy beach to the shallow water. “Who is first?” one of the pastors asked. She sported a Hawaiian shirt, ready to get soaked. One of the three splashed forward. He was, after all, the one who had first asked, thus initiating the conversation that required several phone calls to parents and guardians. He had, in effect, asked the question of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:36: “Look, here is [Lake Tahoe]! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” So began the conversation that led us to the water’s edge to welcome 3 new young people into the baptized fellowship of believers. It was not planned. It was not on the schedule. But if it was to be on their own terms, why not here? Why not this community? Why not this water? Two of the three even had parents present at camp as adult chaperones.
|Gathering for Baptism in Lake Tahoe
And so, by the confirmands’ own request after much consideration, words that have been passed down through sacred scripture and Christian tradition were spoken, and they were immersed three times in the cool waters of Lake Tahoe. The Christian community bore witness and laid hands on them as we proclaimed each of them, “Child of God!”
Their hands were a little wet to take selfies, but I suspect they will include this when they tell their story, nonetheless.
I am blessed to have been part of their community and part of their stories. They laid hands on me and prayed for me on my last night. That was very meaningful. Now when I tell my own story, they are a part of it, selfies or not.
This post reflects on a portion of a study conducted as part of the Confirmation Project. Learn more about this exciting project, which includes 5 denominations HERE!