We are proud to share with you this reflection written by Jacob Sorenson and first seen on his blog The Blessed Wilderness.
My socks were wet. You know the feeling. We were slogging up a soggy trail that wound up a steep wooded hill. The snow was still visible in patches, but most of it had melted in the mild spring weather of the past three days, turning the trails into greasy mud tracks broken by occasional quagmires. Everyone had slid several times, and a few of our party had mud streaks on their knees or backside. We were going to be late for lunch. It felt great to be outside, though. And we were on an adventure.
The three-day confirmation retreat at Stronghold Camp was nearing its end. The 15 youth and 8 adult participants were packed and ready to leave immediately after lunch. Most of the retreat had taken place inside the castle. Yes, it was a castle. It came complete with towers, secret passageways, suits of armor, and a great hall where we had our confirmation lessons. On the first morning, we worshipped the Lord in a secret chapel that was accessible through a swinging doorway behind a bookcase in the library. Most of the retreat was less exciting, though. We sat in a semicircle on mercilessly uncomfortable couches for hours during the lessons about church history, Presbyterian theology, and polity. The great stone fireplace, in which five or six of us could easily huddle together, was covered by a projector screen that displayed a seemingly endless series of important terms and factoids. Many of the participants showed a clear interest in the material being covered, but the presentations were wearing on them. They sank low in the couches, carried glazed-over expressions, or even fell asleep. They described the lessons as “boring,” complained of “too much sitting,” and longed for “more free time.”
Meanwhile, the sun shone outside, almost mockingly. Time outside in the beautiful weather had been very limited. The exceptions were the short walks from the castle to the dining hall for meals and the brief, though quite intense, games of gaga ball in the muddy gaga pit. Saturday night had been a treat. We had a campfire outside under a lovely canopy of stars. A late-season Orion stood vigil as we sang camp songs and roasted marshmallows for s’mores. It seemed at the same time a celebration of our community, a worship service, and a herald of the arriving spring.
Sunday morning found 3 of the girls talking about an adventure. We had seen a tiny portion of the camp’s more than 300 acres, and they wanted to explore. I also wanted to see some of the camp’s secret spots, the places that drip with meaning for camp participants. Every camp has these spots, and we needed a guide to show us, someone who felt the significance of the rocks, trees, and ridges in their very bones. We had two such people. They were former campers and staff members who were volunteering to help with the confirmation retreat, and they had led numerous activities, including the campfire the night before. They collectively had 8 summers of experience working at Stronghold. They were also married to each other, having met and been engaged at camp. They were the perfect guides for our little group.
By the time we set off, we had barely 40 minutes before lunch. We managed to round up several other youth participants who did not want to participate in a final bout of gaga ball. We first went to the quarry, where the stone had been harvested to build the Strong family’s vacation home (castle!) in the first years of the Great Depression, but our adventurers wanted to go farther from the castle. Our two guides looked at each other, sharing a secret understanding, and we set off for David’s Tower. That sounded like a destination worthy of an adventure, so our party of 8 clasped arms and set off with a step-skip, step skip as we sang, “We’re off to see the Wizard!”
It was a 20-minute hike down a long hill, across a small creek bed on a wooden bridge, around a bend, and up another hill, where the tower stood. I walked with the boy who had fallen asleep during the presentations. He liked to be outside, to hunt and hike. We identified leaves, animal tracks, and scat along the soggy trail, while the mud slowly dampened our socks. The girls seemed unimpressed with the coyote scat when we showed it to them.
Our destination came into view as we crested a hill. It was not much to look at. I thought that the word tower might indicate something grander at a camp that boasted a bona fide castle. David’s “Tower” was constructed of drab concrete blocks. It was perhaps seven feet square and about twelve feet tall. My first impression was of a 2-story outhouse. I could see the disappointment on the youth’s faces: We came all this way for this?
Then our guides told us the story. David was one of the Strong children, who vacationed at the castle. At the outbreak of World War II, citizens were encouraged to guard the home front from enemy attack, so David decided to build a lookout tower. I could almost picture the teenage David, full of patriotism, helping to defend his nation by building a lookout tower in the middle of Illinois. David’s Tower was only partially completed when he went to war in 1942. He never returned. Our guides pointed to the spot partway up the tower where the drab grey blocks changed from one shade to another, the point where David’s work was interrupted. In 1962, a short time before they sold the property to the Presbyterian Church, David’s family had completed his lookout tower. We climbed the rickety wooden ladder with some reverence and gazed from the platform out over the tree-covered hills of Camp Stronghold.
David’s Tower was also the place where our two guides had been engaged. The adventurers took special note of this tidbit. Of all the places he could have proposed on camp, including castle towers, secret chapels, and gorgeous retreat centers, he chose David’s Tower. We were in a special place, a place dripping with meaning, and they had shared it with us.
We could not linger, though. Lunch started in 5 minutes, and we had a 20-minute hike in front of us. As we slid our way back down the hill, I considered the confirmation retreat. The youth had heard hours of presentations on doctrine, history, and polity, but something told me they would remember our adventure more than the Chalcedonian formula and David Strong more than Jonathan Edwards. I considered David Strong and the loved ones who finished his tower before entrusting it to the church. Would the young people walking beside me continue the work of the church? Would they find meaning in their faith and pass it on to a generation yet unborn?
I remembered the trivia game of the previous day. None of them knew the correct answer for the term that characterizes the Presbyterian understanding of what begins when the worship service ends. Through their experience at the retreat, they played together and prayed together. They cooperated in group activities, stood in collective wonder at the stars in the heavens, helped one another down the muddy slopes on our hike, and encouraged the one who was visibly nervous about climbing the rickety ladder to David’s Tower. They may or may not have learned the term, but they went home with an experience of true worship.
Jacob Sorenson is a PhD student at Luther Seminary and has a deep interest in bringing scholarly attention to outdoor ministries. He has a Masters of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and more than ten years of experience as a youth minister and camp minister. He loves spending time with his amazing wife Anna (a Lutheran pastor) and their two boys Elijah and Nathanael. He also enjoys gardening, running, singing around a campfire, and most outdoor recreational activities.