We were crammed in to a four-passenger Cessna, with our baggage in the tail. Four teenagers on their way to Church Camp, two of whom were actually Baptist, one who was Catholic and one who was not raised in church, as far as I knew. Lightest kid sat in the back. I sat next to my fellow churchgoer, and my good friend from high school, my Catholic friend, sat up with the pilot.
The airport in Kodiak, Alaska was built during World War II, and was built precisely because of the amount of fog. The Japanese had invaded the Aleutian Islands and the fear was that they were building up to an invasion of North America through Alaska. Nonetheless, fifty-plus years after the war, the fog was no longer convenient but a definite problem. The year after this, my brother and friend would try to fly down to Church Camp and be stuck at the Anchorage International Airport for over twenty-four hours due to the fog (it was only the two of them that year, so they got to travel on a real airline).
We had thirteen kids going that summer, and so the seven-passenger Cessna, which had better equipment and was a faster aircraft, had gone ahead of us. Missionary Air was a service in Alaska to help pastors get out to the bush communities, but they also would fly us to church camp for free when we had enough kids that needed to go. They were able to land. However, the radar was not working that day at the Kodiak Airport, and the pilot didn’t have the better instruments on this plane. So we dipped out of the foggy cloud-clover over some rocky island (there are many islands in the Kodiak archipelago), but the pilot made the decision to turn and fly back to the Kenai Peninsula. And as we flew back, about forty-five minutes into the flight, I noticed the pilot kept leaning over and looking down. “What are you looking at?” I shouted up at him over the roar of the twin-engine Cessna. “Looking for land,” he shouted back. At that point, my friend in the front seat began to pray.
It was the first time in my life I thought I might die. Seventeen years old, and even though I had experienced the death of loved ones and had gone to my grandfather’s funeral that spring, it was in that moment, above the white lofty clouds, blue sky and blazing sun, somewhere above the Gulf of Alaska that I thought this might be it. And it turns out I wasn’t too far off—we started to run out of fuel while landing in Kenai. One engine sputtered out on descent and we had a bit of a bumpy landing. But we landed. We were safe. We were ok. Later that afternoon we took off for a second attempt after refueling and hearing that the weather had cleared, and had a beautiful trip down to Kodiak, and were later reunited with our other campers that had flown out that morning and those that came from Kodiak on the beautiful, temperate rain-forested Woody Island, where the mist rose out of the trees every morning and you couldn’t see across the two-mile channel to Kodiak Island because of the thick choking fog, but where it burned off every afternoon for a brilliant sunset turning into a gorgeous starscape every night.
Church Camp was the place where my faith sprouted, where I was challenged in my faith and in my very being. I remember every year facing the challenge of, having already been saved, trying to come up with some reason I needed redemption and saving again, because the joyful catharsis of being saved on the last night of Church Camp was something I wanted to experience every single year. Because I was so emotionally vulnerable as a teenager, it was easy to start believing I was a horrible sinner who needed saving, was un-loveable and needed to be loved by God in order for everything to be right. This coming from the one-in-a-million youth for whom D.A.R.E. actually worked for. I never smoked, drank, did drugs or slept around. I was a “good kid.” So therefore, there a) must be something wrong with me that I hadn’t realized and needed to find out so I could be saved, or b) was not interesting to anyone else because I was too good and didn’t need to be saved. Tough times for this Christian teen.
But it was that last year at camp, just after high school graduation, that changed things for me. Besides my near-death experience (well, it probably wasn’t really, and maybe I just imagined the engine going out as the pilot never admitted that to us though we were all convinced it was) that same week I was at camp a family friend—my age—committed suicide. After my mom called me and told me, I told my camp counselors, whom I’m pretty sure just thought I was another needy teenager when I became a bit emotional about it (I don’t mean to be flip, but I remember that no one—not the camp counselors or the camp pastor—thought this was a huge thing, that a family friend had taken his own life)—I felt empty. Death was such a final reality and our friend was gone. And there was nothing I or anyone could do to bring him back.
What I really wanted was someone to comfort me, to tell me everything was ok—that I was ok. And as I look back now (“that summer seemed to last forever…” sorry, sidetracked) I realize that I WAS OK. All OF US WERE OK. There was nothing that was so bad that any of us had done. A few there had smoked pot and drank. Some had probably had sex by then. What would have been helpful were some trained counselors to deal with some of the real issues of drug addiction, or at least referrals that way. But I think what we needed to know the most was that we were not broken people. We were still kids! What had we done that was so awful and horrible? But we were made to think that in order to be whole, to be loved by God, to be accepted, we had to be broken first, and that we had to somehow feel bad about who we were and had been.
I still believe in a God of redemption. I still believe in Jesus as my Savior, Redeemer and Friend. But I no longer believe that Jesus wants me to be emotionally abused and shamed before being able to accept love. There is nothing in the Gospels that says “First, be ashamed of who you are. Second, tell everyone how bad you have been. Third, accept Jesus before you leave camp because you don’t know when else you’ll have the chance to be saved.” No. What I read of Jesus is him saying immediately, “Your sins are forgiven.” What I see Jesus doing is accepting people as human beings first and foremost.
I thought about this today because now I live in Seattle and the fog creeps in on my hillside church and parsonage every morning these days, and I’m reminded of Woody Island and how the fog seemed to choke out hope of seeing beyond what was in front of us, but then it would burn off and we’d see the beauty of creation beyond anything we could imagine. Orcas jumping fifty yards off the dock. Sea lions butting up against the pilings. Bald eagles nesting in the trees above Canoe Lake. And the lone red bull (seriously, not making this up) wandering the island, leftover from the days when cattle were ranched there, when the last homesteader left.
I don’t write this to shame my camp counselors, many of whom were just a few years older than me and had the heavy, heavy burden of trying to get kids saved before they went back home. And some of us came from some pretty rotten families. Some came from foster care. Some had been abused by elders. It’s not to say we didn’t need saving—we did. But that week at camp was what saved us, again and again. A week among the trees, on an island away from everyone else, away from teen pressures, away from the family members who didn’t love us or couldn’t care for us. But I don’t think we were broken. Perhaps what we needed so desperately to hear was the message of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, simply because we were children, human beings. Not because of our own brokenness, but because of the brokenness of the world. The brokenness of a world in which a teenager took his own life. The brokenness of a community in which parents abandoned their children. The brokenness of a place in which youth escape these pressures and pain through drug abuse and alcohol.
Maybe we did need saving, but we needed to know that God loved us, and that we weren’t broken, we weren’t damaged goods, we weren’t horrible, sinful people. We were simply children of God. And I’d like to let my camp counselors off the hook for the job of saving us. I think many of them were trying to figure this all out for themselves as well.
The last day of camp I got up early before breakfast and morning devotions. I snuck my Discman out of my sleeping bag and crept out the door, walking down the path to Lower Inspiration Point, where the sign carved into the tree read, “Be still and know that I am God.” There was a little peninsula with rotted-out beams in rows for a little outdoor chapel, jutting out into a point in Canoe Lake, and an old driftwood cross erected in front. A tree grew out near the tip of the peninsula, and just beyond the tree was where many kids were baptized over the years, baptized into a temporary community of faith that would be scattered by Saturday. I sat down on the beam pews and listened to Rattle and Hum by U2, and the song “Love Rescue Me” with Bob Dylan singing came over the headphones:
Love rescue me
Come forth and speak to me
Raise me up and don’t let me fall
No man is my enemy
My own hands imprison me
Love rescue me
Yea, though I walk
through the valley of the shadow
Yea, I will fear no evil
I have cursed Thy rod and staff
They no longer comfort me
Love rescue me
And in that moment as I listened to that song and that album, I kid you not, a bald eagle flew overhead, swooped down and marred the surface of the still lake waters. And I knew that I was being raised up.
The God of Church Camp that said “You must be ashamed. You must regret. You are sinful and unworthy, and you are only worthy if You accept me” was gone. That kind of thinking no longer comforted me. Instead, this idea of God’s love—God’s love for me because I was me—saved me.
And that love by Jesus is still saving me. I have failed many times as a pastor and a mom and a wife. I have failed as a community leader. I have failed in many ways. But I’m not broken. I’m not terrible. I’m not damaged goods. I am loved.