One of my holy places is no more.
Last week I got word that a beloved cabin named Cedar Lodge was at long last torn down at Crossways Camping Ministries at Pine Lake Camp in Waupaca, WI. Cedar was a rustic two story building right on the lake. It was old in 1994 when I first came to love the place, and even when I worked at Pine Lake (1994-1996, 1998, 2000) Cedar (along with a few other older cabins) was already slated on the site plan for removal.
My memories of Cedar were rich.
Many games of hearts took place around the table filled with laughter and budding friendships during staff-training sessions in early summer. The pastors stayed in Cedar during confirmation weeks, and over the years I spent many hours on the couch or at that same hearts table conversing with them as I thought about my future. My first few camp staff reunions took place there in he winter time, when camp was full of snow. One summer I lived with three other guys in what was once a storage room in the basement across from the staff laundry area. (That summer alone should have condemned the building!) Outside in the back there was a swing overlooking the lake where the sun set. That swing held many conversations about faith, life, and love.
Cedar was a great cabin.
My favorite cabin group of all time stayed in Cedar Lodge on a week when camp was full in 1994. It was a great group of boys, three of which would become repeaters I looked forward to seeing each year.
Dave approached me after his parents dropped him off at camp for the first time and said, “My mom told me to make one new friend this week, and I want it to be you.” Dave’s older brother (who I also had as a camper) died the following year which gave us the special bond not just between camper and counselor, but also of grief and hope.
In 1997 Tammie and I were married in the camp chapel but didn’t work at camp that summer. Dave arrived at camp that summer and per usual asked where we were. After being told we were married a light bulb went off as he finally realized after all these years we were a couple. “I KNEW IT,” he exclaimed.
Korey was Dave’s best friend from church. The two of them were always inseparable year after year, through many highs and of course that terrible low. Korey liked to joke around. I can’t remember a time when he didn’t have smile on his face which told me he was either having a good time, was up to something, or probably both. I think that is the reason I liked him so much.
A few years ago I was the speaker at one of our regional camp staff gatherings, and in walked Korey with that same up-to-something smile. “G-Geoff, is that you?” We had a joyful reunion the next couple of days. He had been working full time in Outdoor Ministry after getting the camp bug all those years ago. Korey now serves as Associate Director at Carol Joy Holling Camp, Conference and Retreat Center (Part of Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministries) in Ashland, NE.
Completing the trio was Steve. He was a quiet but sweet kid who always (at least in all the years I knew him) wore a Minnesota Twins baseball camp. Even though I only had him as a camper that one summer, each year after I worked at Pine Lake he would come looking for me along with his parents and we would spend some time catching up. These (then) kids had a big impact on me. I’d like to think I also made a difference to them. In the grand scheme of things I knew them a very short time, a long time ago. Every summer I think of them, and that great week we had in Cedar over twenty years ago.
Cedar, like those days, is now gone.
I think of people who have lost holy sites in their lives – churches that have closed, natural areas that have been developed, camps that are no longer meeting, buldings that have been torn down and other important spaces that established meaning, patterns, or trajectories that changed lives but are no longer accessible. There is some genuine mourning when they are gone, and nostalgia can rewrite our histories to care for the spaces more than the people or experiences we shared with them.
Thinking about Cedar leads me to ask a few questions:
What makes our spaces holy ground? What makes any of our faith communities, our homes, places we visit year after year – holy? Is it the place itself? Some places lend themselves to meaning-making but are those encounters an encounter with the sacred/spiritual/divine a matter of address? Can we GPS where meaning is?
I was recently at a meeting of the conference deans in our Synod at our outdoor ministry site – Camp Calumet in Freedom, NH. Our speaker, Pastor Laura Everett, the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches commented,
“As I visit other churches, one common thread I see among them all is that everybody loves their camp. As an outsider I can tell that cabin matters to you, I can see it in your eyes. But I can’t tell why it matters. To me it is just another cabin, every camp has them. The experience/memory/nostalgia doesn’t really transfer. It is easy for me to care about you, but it is much, much harder for me to care about this place where I have had no experience.”
It is the relationships we cultivate that matter most. People love their holy ground. As Everett said, “We can see it in their eyes.” Our calling has to be more than just connecting people to the spaces where important things happened to us. It has to be about people and the sharing of stories. Holy ground merely provides the setting in which holy stories are told and remembered.
People feel connected to their churches as holy ground.
Many meaningful things happen in congregations. Sometimes real life-changing discoveries take place. Visitors come in and at first may see just another church. What may be holy ground for one person, might be just a nice sanctuary to another person. Space can facilitate or hinder relationship making, but our purpose is not to connect people to the space. It is the meaning we make together that matters. God moments are more important than the spaces we meet in together. Sometimes I believe the church’s greatest challenge is confusing one for the other.
Most people who will read this have no connection to Pine Lake Camp, and they probably never set foot in Cedar Lodge. In the human experience, only a few of us mourn its loss. I think of the new staff arriving this week, several who have never been to Pine Lake before. I expect that they will do great ministry this summer, even if they have never known Cedar Lodge. It is just another cabin, like so many others. Holy ground, ministry, meaning-making, are all about what we make together as we call upon the presence of God. Camp, church, faith, family are ultimately about relationships, not places. Places help – they give us something tangible to contextualize our imaginations and cultivate those relationships that shape our lives. But if Pine Lake ceased to exist (just like its best cabin no longer exists), faith and relationships could still go on. I believe they do and they will. The body of Christ is not a place; it is people who know the presence of God in their lives through Jesus.
Faith roots us in space, place and time, but helps us grow beyond space, place and time.
As we grow in faith and community, we have an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the divine. The people I encountered all those years ago at camp continue to shape who I am now. I give thanks for them. I am grateful that people will gather at Pine Lake this summer. I am grateful they will gather at hundreds of camps across the country too. God willing they will do so for many years to come. People will gather in churches and other Christian communities of faith across the country and across the world this very week as well, and together we are the body of Christ in the world.
None of us will have Cedar Lodge. What we will have is the joy of gathering. We will share God’s Word and participate in the sacraments. We will call upon God in prayer. We will be sent into the world to bring peace, mercy, care and hope. We will help our neighbors. We will build relationships with one another and those around us – because everywhere we go in Christ is holy ground.
Godspeed Cedar Lodge – you have served us well.
Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:1-5)
P.S. – I have always loved this passage from Exodus. What would it mean for us to treat everywhere we went as holy ground? Ironically one of the first camp rules is to wear shoes at all times – you’d be amazed what you could step on!
Thanks to Pastor Laura Everett for helping me think through this post.