It’s hard to believe the summer is almost over and the rituals and traditions of fall have begun. I recently returned from my annual trip to Camp Meeting and as always, it prompted me to reflect on the importance of rituals and traditions in our personal lives and in the lives of our faith communities.
In 1890, a group of west Texas ranching families gathered together in a grove in the Davis Mountains near the Big Bend country for three days of worship and fellowship led by a local Presbyterian minister. Since then, the week following the first Tuesday of August has been Camp Meeting. Attendance at the first Camp Meeting numbered 47 and was, by intent, interdenominational. It still is. Attendance at the122nd meeting was one of the highest ever with more than 3,000 men, women, children and teens coming from throughout Texas and several other states. Some years, there are international guests who have some kind of family or friend connection to Camp Meeting. My friends Kellam and Emily Colquitt, who can trace their roots to one of the founders of the assembly, have given me a standing invitation to be a part of Camp Meeting and it is a permanent entry on my calendar.
The first time I attended, my impression of Camp Meeting was one of chaos, but the more I observed and listened, I discovered that it was actually a very adaptive self-organizing unit. Spread out over acres of nothing except dirt, scrub trees and cactus were hundreds of small, tin-roofed, permanent shelters. To call them cabins would be generous. While the campsite has electricity and running water, its road system is essentially a maze of well-worn paths. To my knowledge, there is not an air conditioner on the property.
The center of the camp is the Tabernacle, with its open sides, exposed beams, permanent pulpit area and row after row of folding chairs. Under its tin roof is held the daily Bible study at 9:00 AM and the three worship services at 11:00 AM, 3:00 PM and 8:00 PM. Guest ministers from the Baptist, Methodist, Disciples of Christ, and Presbyterian denominations rotate the preaching during the week and the preaching legacy of Camp Meeting is a rich one. The hymnal is the 1938 Abingdon edition, even the new ones! It is the only time of the year that I get to sing those old, but quickly familiar songs. The closing hymn of the Sunday workship service is by tradition Handel’s majestic Hallelujah Chorus from The Messiah. It rocks in the Tabernacle.
The heart of Camp Meeting revolves around the six cook sheds that are essentially an extended community. Meals are prepared by crews from the area ranches and each family pays a common fee, assessed at the annual business meeting of each community held near the end of the week. Here, along long rows of tables, one has an opportunity over the meals to “catch up” from year to year on the latest in family happenings…births, deaths, work and all the other stuff of life.
I asked my friend Emily, whose three adult sons take time off from their careers and come with their spouses and children to Camp Meeting, why she believed it was important. She said, “Camp Meeting gives them a sense of balance. It gives them roots and a sense of their history. It gives them a sense of community and an extended family. It unplugs them from their electronics and plugs them into people. Most of all, it strengthens their spiritual beliefs.”
Over coffee, I once asked a pastor friend who had previously served as the Bible Study leader to reflect on Camp Meeting and its’s attraction year after year. “Camp Meeting is for many a sanctuary. It is a safe place in a remote part of the world to retreat to and recover from the brutal elements of life. It is a place to remember the spiritual anchors of life, to be grounded again in faith in Christ and experience spiritual healing from the bruises of everyday existence. For many, it is about family. It is about Christian growth and discipleship, about spiritual nurture and growth. Many trace the beginnings of their walk with Christ to this hallowed place; others speak of remarkable renewal times sparked by the meetings. It is about sacred traditions. Similar camp meetings have come and gone, but this one keeps going and growing. It is also about community. Meal times in the cook sheds are a chance to engage with friends, old and new. In the evenings, without the distractions of electronics, people wander from porch to porch, getting re-acquainted and telling stories. The Camp Meeting leadership has both a commitment to a purpose greater than themselves and an intuitive ability to keep a balance between preserving the past and accommodating the present.”
When I asked him how it has changed in recent years, he said “The most notable change is the growth, particularly with children who are the guarantee of its future. I suppose the overall reason for the growth is the climate of expectation that God will be present and your life will be changed. People still have deep needs to go on pilgrimages to barren, inhospitable places to seek out the will of God. While the land here is going through one of its worst droughts in history, it is nonetheless awash in the outpouring of the Spirit of God. It is mysterious to know exactly why that is the case, but when the bush is burning, it’s time to turn and go, remove your shoes, and realize that you are on holy ground. And that keeps us coming back year after year.”
On the four hour drive to the airport and the flight home, I thought a lot about the words my friends had used to describe Camp Meeting and my own experience. While programs, technology and building facilities are important tools for a congregation of faith, they are still just tools. The essential elements that bind people together are roots, community, sanctuary, spiritual growth, rituals and traditions, endings and beginnings and a commitment to a purpose greater than themselves. These are all present at Camp Meeting. And all are elements of faith communities, regardless of their location, age, denomination or size. They are found in Scripture and in our 21st century towns and cities.
Hopefully, you find them in your church.