I recently told someone that our family holiday plans this summer included tenting for 10 days in northern Ontario. They replied, “Why on earth would you do that? That sounds awful.” Unfortunately that’s the same reaction I get when I tell certain people I go to church.
I reflected on this last week while our family was camping. We had a blast kayaking, hiking, swimming, listening to loons and watching turtles sunbathe on logs. I couldn’t understand why anyone would think this was awful. Who wouldn’t want to spend time in nature like this?
Granted, the temperature was 36 degrees plus humidity and it didn’t cool down much at night. And one of our tents leaked after a heavy rainfall, soaking my son’s sleeping bag. But it was the mosquitoes, black flies and deer flies that cast a real shadow of doubt on my love of camping. Thousands of bloodthirsty insects launched a diabolical assault on our family that brought at least one of us to tears one evening. It was brutal.
I must confess, I questioned whether camping was worth it that night. For a few brief moments, I considered converting to the non-camping tribe. I didn’t, but I discovered a new appreciation for why some people hate camping.
Camping isn’t for everyone. I still believe spending quality time in nature is essential for everyone’s well-being, but I recognize camping isn’t the only way to do this.
I’ve also concluded that church isn’t for everyone. Over the years I’ve developed an appreciation for why people walk away. I still believe spending quality time with God by yourself and in community is essential to everyone’s well-being, but church isn’t the only way to do this. In its current dominant forms I’m not sure it’s even the best way to do this.
For me, camping and church are about connection. This connection first requires unplugging—unplugging from the grid, the “rat race” and the tyranny of the “urgent” to be fully present. It means disconnecting from the demands and distractions of modern life in order to connect with nature, Spirit and other human beings more intimately. Camping breathes life into my re-imagining what Sabbath might look like in our screen-obsessed 21st century. Except for those devilish mosquitoes!
On our way home my son asked me, “Why did God create mosquitoes?”
As with most of life’s difficult questions, I possess no sufficient answers. As I see it, there’s no use in questioning the purpose or nature of mosquitoes. Their existence is a reality to be accepted and strategically responded to. This goes for most adversity in life.
M. Scott Peck begins his book The Road Less Traveled with these words: “Life is difficult. This is a great truth ... once we truly see this truth, we transcend it ... once we truly understand and accept it.”
I must accept the difficult truth that everyone I love will die someday. I can try to avoid the pain and loss of love by not developing deep relationships, but what kind of life would that be? When I choose to enter love, pain and loss come with the territory.
The same applies to church community. Wherever two or three are gathered, there is Jesus in our midst. This is true and amazing, but you can count on egos, politics and drama being present as well. To engage anything like church or nature fully and deeply, you have to engage the good, the bad and the ugly. When we do this, sometimes we encounter dragons we need to confront. Discernment helps us separate the dragons from the mosquitoes.
In life you face a few dragons and tens of thousands of mosquitoes. You can and ought to slay the dragon, but you can’t eliminate every mosquito. On some level, literally and physically, mosquitoes must be accepted. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do all we can to mitigate the affliction they bring. There are things we can do to protect ourselves and others from bloodthirsty entities in every area of life, including the church. And we should. But in order to enjoy all nature has to offer, you have to accept a few mosquito bites. It is nature’s entry fee for getting to sleep under the stars, witness the magic of the northern lights or meteor showers or paddle across a pristine lake.
Participating in a Christ-centred faith community has just as many blessings to offer, but they come to us through imperfect selfish human beings. To receive all the church has to offer, you have to accept you’re going to get stung by a few bugs. It goes with the territory.
Troy Watson is a pastor at Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ontario.