I was perhaps twelve years old, taking a sunset walk on the nature trail at summer camp, when I saw a flash of movement in the dense brush. When my eyes met the bottomless gaze of a doe, I froze in place, longing to stretch out our encounter. But the doe leaped up and away, running on elegant legs. Her white tail seemed like a flag beckoning me to follow. Trying to keep her in view, I went off trail. Thorns tore my bare legs with patterns, like the words of a new story I didn’t yet know how to interpret.
Finally, the deer disappeared into the woods. With a mixture of loss and exhilaration, I made my way to the Vespers campfire circle. A camp counselor read scripture, then spoke of Jesus with his crown of thorns, giving his life for our salvation. Deep within me, deeper than my logical mind, a connection was made. I felt that I’d touched him, somehow, pursuing the deer. Her vulnerable, wild otherness had called me to follow through thorns. Jesus, in his vulnerable wild otherness, now called me to follow a path of discipleship that would also lead me off-trail through challenges. My lingering awe in the aftermath of meeting Jesus as an embodied presence beyond anything I’d learned in Sunday School told me it was worth the risk.
This story is just one example of how my soul story was shaped at summer camp. Growing up, I was privileged to enjoy numerous summer camp adventures and became a summer camp connoisseur! I knew which ones had the best accommodations and food and which were likely to transform my life with new insights, great memories, and lasting friendships.
Some camps were about performance. At Cheerleading or Basketball Camp, you went to get coached and improve your game. Though there were often team-building activities, they often heightened competition. While healthy antagonism can inspire improvement, the pressure to succeed often caused anxiety that hindered my improvement. My attendance at such camps served its purpose but gave me no lingering soul stories that continue to enrich me years later.
The best summer camps of my youth provided recreation with field games, craft time, and outdoor adventures, but they also opened up re-creation–being created anew. Through group story-sharing and reflection, these camps shaped a community context of welcome, safety, and acceptance, in which I learned to see myself as part of the larger story of God’s love for all creation.
Now that I’m an adult, I sometimes envy my sons when they leave for summer camp. Trying to stay gainfully employed and improve in my vocation and business, I tend to prioritize opportunities to improve performance when I can make time for continuing education. Yet I still long for a time out for soul exploration in a safe, accepting community. A space away where I can try new things and belly flop without lasting embarrassment. Where I can exchange inspiring stories with others and make friends who are not only playmates but soul companions. Where encounters with God, other people, and the whole Earth community can make new soul stories that re-create my life.
As a spiritual director who also offers what I call “story coaching” for writers, artists, healers, and changemakers, I’m realizing that performance and acceptance are not opposites but helpmates in vocational growth and creativity. Spiritual formation is the source of the resilience we need to complete creative projects and persevere in spiritual and social change leadership. In a community of acceptance, we learn that transformation begins in accepting ourselves and our reality as they presently are, listening for deeper desire, and taking the risk of following where it may lead us.
My encounter with the deer at summer camp has become a metaphor, a mini Hero’s Journey, which revealed a pattern of wonder and sacrifice on the path of following Christ. My present desire is to create an affordable and accessible experience for others that helps them reflect on, contextualize, and re-create their soul stories. What if we could go to summer camp as adults and, within the haven of an accepting community, release the bindings of old stories which block us from pursuing God’s dreams for our lives?
These reflections are the inspiration behind my upcoming offering of Soul Story Summer Camp, an online-facilitated retreat for creatives, changemakers, and spiritual seekers. Admittedly, doing summer camp in an online format might seem challenging, but my fellow “camp counselors” and I are skilled at facilitating story sharing, craft time, and even nature exploration through forest bathing! I hope you will consider joining us for a three-day adventure to enliven your curiosity, explore your creativity, ad kindle your courage in an accepting and playful community. You can learn more and sign up to join us here.
Laura Elly Hudson, founder of Resilient Spirit and host of Soul Story Summer Camp, helps writers, artists, spiritual leaders, healers, and changemakers to cultivate their courage so that they can heal relationships, complete projects, and step into their dreams. Laura is a spiritual direction and story coach, community storytelling facilitator, and memoir writer. Ordained in the PC(USA), Laura has served as co-pastor for nearly 14 years. Laura lives in La Grande, Oregon, with her husband and co-pastor, Keith, their two sons, and a cat named Chocolate.