“Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19 but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. 20 Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown”. (Mark 4: 18-20)
There is a type of theology that says, rather than waiting for Jesus to return at the end of time and establish his Kingdom\Reign, Jesus’ resurrection has already changed the universe. It’s our job to start building that Kingdom\Reign ourselves, now. This kind of theology is not thoughts “out there” somewhere, it is experienced “in here”. Almost impossible to explain, it is also nearly indestructible, because it is reality – a memory lived that cannot be taken away. It changes a person.
Some people I know – some I just met, some I have known for years, and some I am now reacquainted with – live that theology. It is who they are, and it changes their world and everyone around them wherever they go. Yesterday, in Concord, NH, at a retirement community’s public hall, those people gathered in a room and I was lucky enough to be in the room with them. My skin tingled just sitting in a room with them as I remembered that I, too, was one of those people (the experiential people, not the retired ones. In fact, nobody in the room was retired in any meaningful way from a life of ministry).
In this room of 30 to 50 people, there were professors, nurses, world travelers and people who lived in the same place for years, elementary school teachers, teachers of the mentally challenged and the hearing impaired, musicians who have probably caused the hearing impairment of others in their time. There were landlords, and people with landscaping businesses, people who designed tools to make quilts, people who made light bulbs, and people who sold T-shirts. There people all the way up to age 70-something. There were adoptive parents, gay parents, heterosexual parents, single parents, divorced parents – and they were builders, all of them. They have been busy for the last 40 years or so building the kingdom. Some have built it in Columbia, and some in California, and some in Massachusetts, some in Connecticut, and many in New Hampshire. And beyond the walls of that room, there were people from all over who Skyped in (or tried) who were also Kingdom builders wherever they went. As someone there noticed, there were no stockbrokers, no investment bankers, no builders of weapons. There were only people that cared for others and made the world a better place, because they had experienced a “better place”, they had helped to create a better place for the humans they met, and they received from that better place while they were there and years later. That “better place”, that bit of the Kingdom here on earth, was the Deering Conference Center, in Deering, NH in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Yesterday, those people experienced a reunion.
The camp was led by Gordon and Cy Sherman and Bill Salt over the years. The reunion was organized by Em Ross and Cy and pulled off by them, with Gordon and Bill. The reunion was scheduled to start at 10am and finish at 6pm. I don’t know if it worked out that way, because my family and I arrived at 1 and left at 4, but in my 3 hours I (and my children and my wife) got to experience the incredible power of people who have experienced Deering.
After my first week at Deering, in 1975, I knew that I would never have to settle for “the way it is” ever again. I can remember after one of my weeks at camp, coming home and having my mother say, “That’s the way things are. You just have to get used to it” and I knew she was wrong. I knew we had choices about the way things are because we had choices about the way we saw people and the way we acted toward them.
My first week at Deering, I went because my minister, Bob Kyte convinced my mother that it was a “leadership camp”. Having been an outsider to my peers for all of 6th, 7th, 8th, and part of 9th grade, we moved to Wilbraham and I knew people, but I still didn’t have a lot of friends. I was a nerd, a little low on the hygiene, suffering from depression already and “that guy” that others picked on in school – even if they didn’t know me. When I arrived at camp, it took me at least 3 days to feel much of anything, but then I realized something was different. I was being accepted – not because I had anything or did anything, but because I was a human being and these people assumed that God had created me. I’d been to church for years and believed that God created everyone, but somehow, I didn’t think that included me. These people acted like it did. They never said anything, exactly, that I remember. They just assumed I knew it and – after awhile, I did.
Gordon, the thin guy who put out his cigarettes in an orange juice can, spoke about teaching Sunday School on Long Island and thinking, “Hey, what if we actually did what that Jesus guy said? What would it look like?”. He said that he and his wife had decided to move their family up to New Hampshire for at least summers, and hopefully full-time at some point. People talk about living for Christ. Here was a guy who had actually done it.
Peter, the crazy elf with the very good heart, was a minister and the scales fell from my eyes about my calling to ministry. It occurred to me that the kind of people who were the epitome of joyous Christians, were probably the epitome of Christians – ministers.
I remember John and Dave, two of the campers, simply accepting me, and the girls not recoiling at the sight of me for my zits. People gave hugs all the time. Becky Johnson, my “living group” leader ( a type of small group we broke into), acted like we were normal teens and were expected to be full of life, happy, enjoying ourselves. I was considered “normal” and full of hope for the first time in years. After jumping on mattresses yelling “I am somebody! You are somebody! Together, we are somebody!” the spirit was rising in me and I was willing to be brave – I showed my smile and wanted to share the feeling. By the time the week was over, I knew I was going to be a minister and was asked to be on the state-wide United Church Youth Council. I had changed – from loser to leader and – if I could do it, so could anybody else. I really believed that then, and I believe it now. It only takes a spark to get a fire glowing… You want to pass it on. But I’m not the only one.
There was a woman yesterday at the reunion (Sarah Dunklee) that had “intentionally taken the camp experience to Columbia and tried to create it there”. My friend Dave was involved in taking handicapped city kids to ski in Massachusetts, I think. He talked about it as a “calling”. And, in keeping with the Spirit of Deering, the kids who went helped change the mind of the mountain staff – they were going to lose money now by doing more, but they didn’t care because they looked forward to helping the kids. A mutual friend, Sue, is helping veterans who have lost limbs to ski again in Vermont.
Teachers around the circle at the reunion weren’t just teachers – they were teachers of special ed, or teachers of autistic kids or deaf kids, teachers of little kids – working with people with no voice in the political arena but affected by it – and people with even less voice than that. They tried to create the camp experience by treasuring all of these people – and seeing them as people, loved by God. Years ago, Gordon had shown me the story “Ragman” in a book. “Ragman” is about Jesus taking the time and seeing everyone for all they were – with whatever pace they had. No one who reads that story leaves unaffected.
When Bill Salt talked about Deering and camp staff, it became clear that he had brought the staff that brought me. Missing were “kids” who I sent there – 4 “generations” of Deering ran through my head at the same time, while my children ran around playing with the daughter of another Deering-ite who was there. When Roger Goode showed up, you could see the love in the faces of his friends.
When Gary Ciocci, Heather Bordeaux, and Gail Hegeman started playing “(All My Life’s A) Circle” by Harry Chapin, my mind wandered to another Harry song, “I Wonder What Would Happen to This World” which has as its lyrics, “If a man tried to take his time on earth and prove before he died what one man’s life could be worth… And if a woman tried to make her lifetime something more than a servant, mother, wife time, I wonder what would happen to this world”. As Cy told me how proud she was of Gail and her professional drum kit back at home, I knew the answer was that it would like this.
Since I’ve been home, I’ve seen postings from a person I sent to Deering as a youth minister and wanted to go back, and a friend who sang Big Band music in the Southern US who also wanted to be there. I’ve seen postings from pastors who are changing the world in their little corner of it who also wanted to be there. The reality that was Deering and the building of the Kingdom of God continue on as the people talked about planning another get-together another time. God’s Deering lives on around the world and Paula Richards is selling Deering T-Shirts for it. : )
One last thing that more than just I noticed: Deering closed more than 20 years ago and the people who were at the reunion should be – as I am – getting on in years. At my 30th High School reunion, all of the men had put on weight, lost some or all of their hair, and generally seemed like “mature” adults. Even the people with grandchildren who attended this reunion didn’t look old there. Blaze looked great (no surprise there), but everyone had the glow of youth in their eyes, giving them far less gray hair and far fewer pounds somehow. There is a belief in Greek Orthodox theology that says that sanctified people’s bodies don’t disintegrate – even when they are dead. I assume that means that good, loving and sanctified people age slower as well. At Deering’s reunion yesterday it showed.
It’ll happen again, as it has continued to happen daily since Deering existed – friends will meet and share visions and do the work the Spirit and their experiences call them to do, because the Kingdom never goes away. Once you’ve experienced it, you want to pass it on – really.