A few days have passed since I got home after working with the Shrine Mont Camps. This year I was fortunate enough to work with three: St. George’s II, Senior High Youth Conference (SHYC) and Explorers II. Sharing the beauty of God’s creation and trying to motivate a sense of stewardship in campers is a blessing that I am grateful for. It is also a charge that I take very seriously and try to undertake to the best of my ability. In fact, months of planning go into the precious few hours that I get with the campers. But, even in God’s country, things do not always go according to plan – at least not mine.
I went to Shrine Mont to plan. There were many things to line up. I had spent the previous months coordinating with various community partners and Shrine Mont Camps staff to line up hikes and service projects. Less than two weeks remained before the camps I was working with started. St. George’s was slated to remove invasive plants from the Shrine Mont grounds in order to let native plants return. SHYC was to clear ground and build raised planting beds at a community garden run by St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Toms Brook, Va. Explorers was set to hike to a swimming hole on Overall Run in Shenandoah National Park. The day after that they were to conduct a trash cleanup at Lake Laura.
When I got to Orkney Springs on Saturday the 12th, there was a buzz of activity. A lot of camps were in session and a large congregation from Northern Virginia was visiting for a parish retreat. I had two days to find invasive plants for St. G’s to cut, scout the swimming-hole hike for Explorers and make the final arrangements for SHYC’s community garden project. Most of this work could only be done in daylight so those two days yielded only a few hours of opportunity. My frenzied pace added to the din of activity on the mountain. I have to admit, much of that time, I was stressed and feeling a bit cynical.
In spite of my pessimism, plans came together in that hurried 48 hours. I found a broad stand of Japanese Stilt Grass on one of the trails. Yes, I was actually happy to find an aggressive alien invader in Shrine Mont. It was an opportunity for the campers to reverse a mistake of mankind and try to restore a bit of balance to God’s creation. I thought, not only could St. G’s cut back the stilt grass but they could build a fire ring there and turn it into a usable space. Later that day – I got lost three times – I finally found the swimming hole that Explorers campers would hike to. On Sunday morning I met with Paris Ball and we finalized transportation plans for the SHYC community garden trip and the Explorers hike. I was tired but my plans were set.
The rector of the visiting parish officiated the service at the Shrine later that morning. The Gospel reading that day was the Parable of the Sower from Matthew, chapter 13. Teaching from a boat on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus told the story of the farmer who cast his seeds in a wide swath. Seeds that fell on the road were eaten by birds and did not grow. Seeds that fell on rocky ground immediately grew but were soon scorched by the hot sun. The seeds that fell among the thorns were soon choked by vines. Only the seeds sown on rich soil produced abundant fruit. Some of those produced many times over.
In his sermon, the rector confessed that even he did not know what to make of this passage at first. Jesus’ parables are not tales to be taken literally, but metaphors to be interpreted. After some thought the rector concluded that the path, the stones and the thorns represent the flaws in our hearts and minds that prevent the Word of God from taking root in our soul. We need to work hard to find the good soil in ourselves where God can bring forth fruit.
This struck me hard. I have a bad habit of getting tangled in the thorns and tripping on the stones in my heart. My pride and my selfish longing for validation often cause me to misinterpret the actions of others. In fact, these obstructions kept me away from the Church, and Shrine Mont, for years. Only recently have I found my niche in the Church – my commitment to protecting creation. Tiny seeds of faith are again taking root in that soil. Even still, I struggle to avoid the stones and thorns. After the service I went back to my room in Maryland House and just sighed. It was time to drive home.
I was back in Shrine Mont and ready to work on Tuesday, July 22. My wife, Heather, and my son, Dylan, were with me this time. I had a vision of the perfect week that lay ahead. Days of sowing seeds of stewardship in campers would be followed by evenings of fellowship and bonding with my family. What happened next was not what I expected.
In spite of all the arrangements, supplies arrived at the last minute, or late, or not at all. Torrential rain caused the community garden project in Toms Brook to be cancelled. Explorers got a late start on the morning of the swimming-hole hike so I had to cut my presentation short. The canoes for the Lake Laura cleanup, which were an unexpected and last-minute addition, never arrived. The whole week required flexibility and a Plan B mentality. I was sure I had let folks down. On Saturday morning I was physically and mentally exhausted. By Sunday, I was tangled in the thorns and it was time to drive home.
It’s taken some time and distance to examine the experience objectively. Every day is an opportunity to plant seeds. Like the farmer in the parable, you can’t always control where they land. Campers are not aware of the planning and logistical wrangling that go into the programs they participate in. They arrive and they do. Volunteers and staff sweat the details and try to find the good soil when obstacles get in the way. The important thing is that the campers get the fruit.
When the rocks for the fire ring did not arrive as planned, we had to send some of the St. George’s campers into the woods to gather some while others pulled the stilt grass. In 90 minutes, they had cleared a space and built a fire ring large enough for a couple dozen campers to sit around. Later that afternoon a mystery group of campers built small stone sculptures there as an offering - or maybe it was a “thank you” gift.
When the community garden project in Toms Brook was cancelled at the last minute because of muddy conditions, I met with the SHYC staff. We rallied and put together Plan B. We hiked the campers out to Salt Peter Run at the base of North Mountain. We found dozens of tiny creatures that make their home in the rocky substrate of the pristine mountain stream. A casual glance at the creek might make one think that its stony bed is a sterile environment. In fact, it is a vibrant habitat alive with innumerable organisms – proof that God’s creation is packed with abundance even in places you wouldn’t expect. That afternoon we installed a rain barrel (it pays to have a few extra lying around) at Stribling Cottage. The rain barrel will reduce runoff and protect the resource that harbors the bugs we played with that morning. Camp staff and SHYC campers gathered firewood later that afternoon and placed seating logs around the new fire ring that St. G’s started the day before. It is a new space where campers can gather and experience the outdoors.
The Explorers hike got off to a late start and we got to the swimming hole behind schedule so we just let the campers play. Overall Run in Shenandoah National Park is a breathtaking place. A series of clear, icy pools cascaded down the canyon and the leafy canopy dappled the water with specks of sunlight. The campers joyfully devoured their time at the swimming hole as they jumped off rocks and slid down waterfalls into the cool pools. After lunch we had a few minutes to reflect on how one can experience God by connecting with creation. The next day, in spite of the heat and the absence of canoes, Explorers campers collected a dozen bags of trash from the ditches and roadways that drain to Lake Laura.
It’s hard to see seeds take root amidst the noise and confusion of marred plans. Now I just focus on my memory of the sights and sounds of campers engaging with creation. They were happily unaware that they ended up in that place through a series of disconnects and improvisations. The week certainly did not unfold as I planned. If I learned anything, it’s that I need to let go of my pride and have faith that it turned out exactly as God intended.
I am absolutely sure of one palatable fruit that grew last week. Each night, after working with the camps, I got to slow down and spend time with Heather and Dylan. There was no television and no computer. We were just a family in the most beautiful place on earth. Sometimes we went fishing at the Orkney Springs pond, sometimes we caught fireflies. On Wednesday night Dylan (age 7) caught his first fish – two actually. When I started to feel the thorns near the end of the week, Dylan planted a new seed in me when he said, “I love this place.”
We’ll be back.
By Lorne Field
Lorne Field is a former St. George's camper, St. Andrew's counselor, and a member of the Diocese of Virginia's Committee on the Stewardship of Creation.
Lorne works as the environmental outreach coordinator for Chesterfield County. He's been featured on the View from the Mountain for his work with Explorers Camp and for his earlier reflection, "My Life Outside."
"The Parable of the Sower" was originally featured on Lorne's personal blog.
Spreading the good news of Shrine Mont Camps into the Valley of the World.
The View from the Mountain is written by a rotating cast of staff writers and contributors.