by Charles Lane Cowen
This week at Older Children’s Camp I had the great pleasure of working with the Rev. Becky Gettel to develop chapel time. The greatest thing about Older Children’s Camp is that we’re working with kids that still have that child-like sense of wonder and imagination, but also have the ability to engage in deeper conversations than many of those at Younger Children’s Camp. The second greatest thing about Older Children’s Camp was our week-long theme of Harry Potter. As a self-professed geek and Potter-Head, I was sooooooooo excited to talk about being God’s beloved in the light of the Harry Potter books. Examining Harry’s journey in the books, Becky worked out a lesson plan that looked at themes from the book as gifts from God:
I am God’s Beloved, and God has Given Me the Gift of…
Each day in chapel we explored how these gifts remind us that we are God’s beloved, and how we act toward our friends, animals, nature, and ourselves reflects God’s love for us. For me, the lynchpin for the entire week came in the gift of Conscience.
In the Harry Potter books, Harry is always getting in trouble for breaking rules, but he almost always does so because he is trying to help a friend. I realize the danger of teaching kids that sometimes they need to break the rules, so we also emphasized that Harry had to pay pretty severe consequences for breaking the rules. He also rarely, if ever, acted alone. There were always friends, trusted adults, and teachers guiding him. In chapel time we explored ways of making good choices in life through prayer, Christian education, and relying on our friends and family. Becky came up with a great idea of having the children walk the labyrinth behind the Tower of Silence. Each child picked out one plain, heavy river stone representing bad choices and one smooth, polished, colorful stone representing the right choice. The children walked into the labyrinth, left the ugly stone, and returned into the world with the colorful stone.
I know that when I look back on my choices in life, I often have to carry around the weight of uncertainty. From simple things like who to sit with at lunch to more complicated choices like do I go back to the camp buffet line for a second helping of Chef Jeff’s amazing banana bread (the answer is yes). For kids, life is full of choices that will dramatically affect the rest of their lives. Who will be my friends? How hard will I study? Do I go to church? What kind of person do I want to be? Learning to do the right thing at an early age can make making those choices easier. The beauty of youth, however, is that even though every choice has lasting consequence, there is still time to correct those choices. Just as the children journeyed into the labyrinth, their lives will be filled with twists and turns that often seem to take them away from the center. If you stay on the path, however, you will always reach the goal.
If you’ve never walked a labyrinth, I highly recommend it. (Come visit ECC, and I’d be glad to show you ours!) Unlike a maze that has dead ends and tries to trick you, a labyrinth twists and turns in one continuous path from the outside, to the center, and back out again. Praying with the labyrinth is one of my favorite forms of prayer. As I walk into the center I imagine retreating from the world and into the presence of God. I was amazed watching the children in chapel time because, with very little prompting, they took this exercise so seriously. Most of the children walked slowly, purposefully, and with great awareness. Holding the heavy stone in one hand and the lighter stone in the other, the children explored the burden of journeying with the weight of bad choices. Once in the center, the burden was placed at the feet of God, and the children could journey out of the labyrinth with the beauty of the small stone reminding them of the warmth and beauty of God.
I went back later that day for my own daily practice of praying the labyrinth. As I worked my way into the center I found myself standing at the pile of stones the children left behind. It was an incredible moment of feeling the closeness of God. I noticed the beauty of nature that surrounds the labyrinth. I listened to the birds singing all around me. I marveled at the choices the children had brought before God to pray on, and I felt connected—to God, to animals, to friends, and to self. The entirety of our week’s lessons was summed up in this little exercise I had been doing since arriving at camp about a month earlier. I began my journey out of the labyrinth, but something felt different. Whereas before I always spent my moment of quiet in the presence of God at the center of the labyrinth and then journeyed back into the world, this time I felt as if that presence were following me. It was a sensation like a bungee cord tied to the rocks at the center of the labyrinth. Even though I had to go back to the noise and chaos of camp—and in a few more weeks to the real world—I felt a strong pull connecting me to God. It took seeing these campers and their great faith to help me realize that.
If you haven’t figured this out yet from my previous blogs, I think that camp is a pretty amazing place. Celtic spirituality, which also utilizes labyrinths, teaches that there are thin places and thin times when the veil between heaven and earth becomes transparent. In these times and places we can catch glimpses of the divine. When I’m at camp, I feel like I see what the Kingdom of God will look like. It’s full of people singing God’s praises, and loving one another unconditionally. It’s a place where we carry the burdens of tough choices, but we carry them surrounded by friends who help us understand that we can give those burdens to God. A camper last week asked me about heaven. I don’t believe heaven is just some place we go when we die. Life’s not a board game where the winners go to heaven and the losers go to hell. I believe that the living Christ teaches us how to live our lives in such a way that we love God and love one another. Heaven is the achievement of that goal. The Kingdom of God is most certainly at hand, and I believe that I see a glimpse of it in the children playing at that thin place we call the Episcopal Conference Center.