COMMENTARY: Summer camp can have a spiritual dimension

c. 1996 Religion News Service

(Dale Hanson Bourke is the author of"Turn Toward the Wind"and publisher of Religion News Service.)

(RNS)-For the past week I have spent much of my time marking, etching, and sewing my son's name on everything from underwear to a sleeping bag to a tube of toothpaste. The instructions from his camp are clear: Nothing must enter the grounds without his name indelibly emblazoned on it.

Like parents across the country, I am preparing to send my child off to sleep-away camp. But this one is different.

Packed in his trunk, along with mosquito repellant and suntan lotion, is a Bible. This is the second summer that Chase has chosen to attend a nondenominational Christian camp with an outstanding sports program and an emphasis on spiritual values.

I'm sending my son to Christian camp for some of the same reasons my friend is sending her son to a Jewish camp. We both want our children to have an experience that is physically challenging and spiritually stimulating.

When our children get away from the traffic and television and video games, we want them to connect with the essentials of life. And both of us want that experience to include the faith that is important in our families.

And while there are dozens of wonderful camps that have no religious component, we've found that a camp experience that also acknowledges and encourages faith really makes a difference.

Last summer, he came home from camp proudly displaying ribbons for tennis accomplishments as well as one that applauded his strength of character. There are few experiences in a child's life that give such visible accolades to internal strength. And I am thrilled that his character ribbon is displayed with his sports trophies.

For Chase, a Christian camp gives him an opportunity to talk about God without seeming like a nerd. He can acknowledge that when faced with a physical challenge, prayer is an option. He can confess his struggles over being nice to his younger brother and not seem like a wimp.

And he can look at his college-age counselors, all of whom are exceptional athletes, and know that being cool includes having a moral awareness.

After a competitive year at school, Chase can't wait to get back to camp. He'll be in an atmosphere that challenges him to excel personally, but doesn't pit him against his teammates.

He'll be in a place where relaxing doesn't mean a high-intensity game of Mega Man X. And he'll spend one month being totally and completely himself while discovering strengths he didn't know he had.

I expect Chase to come home from camp this year as he did the year before: a little taller, a little more confident and a lot more grounded. Last summer, instead of running back to his electronic toys, he held back, still savoring the quiet and serenity he left behind.

Camp is not reality. It is an escape from a world that tends to crowd out the quiet and the spiritual. But a camp experience that leads children to experience nature-human and divine-does help put this skewed reality into perspective.

As Chase tests his independence, measures his courage and flexes new muscles, I'm grateful that God will be included in his thoughts and discussions.