Well, this weekend, things went south. Ha! What a great pun.
John and I (that means John) cleaned out the car, ran laundry, arranged for dog-letter-outers, and we (that means me) stocked a cooler, printed out directions, donned sunglasses, and drove to Florida. Northern Florida.
We were going to a memorial service for John's "Grandmommy," a fascinating lady who had been both divorced and a lady preacher in the 50's and 60's, living near the Texas/Mexico border and frequently crossing it with goodies for nearby village kids. What I didn't understand was why the memorial service was being held at a camp - a secluded, northern Florida, good ol' fashioned camp meeting. We were about a mile from arrival and I was asking, in essence, how the Texas-bred family came to attend a camp in Florida, when John said matter-of-fact-ly, "oh, my ancestors founded it." By ancestors, he meant his great-grandfather.
Now Grandmommy had suffered from Parkinson's, so she donated her body to medical science, which is both extremely philanthropic and also takes a certain steel constitution, in my opinion. So rather than a funeral being held at the time of her death, a memorial service was scheduled for the annual June camp meeting.
I hope you've been to a camp meeting. It is one of the distinct expressions of historic American religion that has lasted for roughly two centuries. Old-timey songs like "Shall We Gather at the River?" and "When I Went Down to the River to Pray" embody the outdoor combo - much before the word "green" got hijacked - of faith, worship, and nature. This camp meeting was as camp meeting as they come: an open air "tabernacle" (if you have no frame of reference for this, think park pavilion with benches all facing towards the front), musty dormitories that have stood, sagged or leaned with sweaty kids, flirting teenagers, young families, and camp patriarchs for decades, hungry lines of nametag-wearing attenders happy to have a break from cooking and cleaning up, communal bathrooms, and lizards.
My camp meeting, growing up, didn't have lizards. We had cicadas and mosquitos. But we were in Indiana. This was Florida, so lizards scurried under porches, up trees, and hopefully not into my suitcase. I didn't see any gators, but there were some not far from camp. Tiny frame cabins stood in rows across the grounds, often passed down from generation to generation. Ceiling fans whirred in the tabernacle and we sang "Victory in Jesus" from the old, worn, blue revival hymnbooks, and then Michael W. Smith's "How Majestic Is Your Name," and then something from Chris Tomlin.
There were altar calls while we sang "I Surrender All," and bare lights hung, strung between trees, swaying in soft summer breezes. The concession stand buzzed with activity after evening services, stocked with candy, pop, and other post-repentance snacks.
My young nephews squawked as their teeth came in and their legs learned to walk and they muffled out "elifbef" in honor of my given name Elizabeth.
And I saw people I knew. I think the quiet secret of camp meeting is the feeling of homecoming, the feeling of reunion - but I'd never been to this one. And yet, in rural northern Florida, where pine trees scatter needles in the hot sun, I saw people I hadn't seen in several years, who used to attend church with me, who traveled to the U.S. from Zimbabwe. I saw people who knew people I knew. I saw photos on old, faded camp fliers of people I knew or had heard of who preached three decades ago at camp.
What does it do to your faith to travel miles into the country, give up internet, cell phone service, and Starbucks, and re-orient your schedule around morning seminars, afternoon studies, and evening services? In ritual language, a liminal state is part of a rite of passage in which your identity is suspended between what you were and what you will be - in some rituals, a woman may be "sequestered" with other women, given something neutral to wear, fast, and then experience baptism, or the joining of "adulthood," or whatever the rite of passage directs to. But the liminal state can last minutes, or hours, or days, or weeks. When you emerge, you come out as something new. And I think, sometimes, when you are spatially removed from your regular surroundings, given new habits, new schedules, it is an opportunity to pause, breath, and receive and be formed rather than attempting to affect and form others. It's like the moment under the water, if you're baptized by immersion.
I think I immediately associate camp meeting with outdoor baptism because the two used to be linked more often, and because both place the believer in the outdoor cathedral of nature rather than an indoor worship space. There's nothing quite like worshipping as rain falls two feet away and the scent of pine needles mingles with the perfume of a lady down the bench. Why not allow the crickets to join in singing?
I enjoy churches that schedule some of their summer services in local parks: whether urban or rural, experiencing God outside is in some ways inevitably public. Campmeeting, for many, can offer an awesome sense of a yearly Sabbath that removes you from washing machines, answering machines, and fax machines. It's also frugal: not exactly the Hilton, but what a child-memory tugging experience, to walk down to the bathroom with your towel and shampoo in time to go to supper.
As we drove away, I think John and I were both homesick: most "vacation" spots don't leave you feeling homesick for them, because you're returning "home." But Oxford, England, made me permanently in mourning for every moment I spend outside its city limits. And Bethlehem Family Camp won't wash out of the towels spinning in the dryer.
When you are removed from your cares, as when you rest somewhere, it's easy to play that it will continue to last. It is that longing for home, for heaven, for rest, for haven, that I believe tugs you to long for the Day when all loved ones are near, troubles are put to bed, and you and the crickets join voices again.