Last weekend our family went back-country camping. Not the I-got-a-case-of-beer-in-the-cooler-and-a two-room-tent camping. No, this is the pack-everything-you-really-need-and-put-it-on-your-back-and-hike-several-miles-in-the-mud camping. This was our second time doing such a trip – and we love it. We bring our hound dog Phoebe (who sleeps with us in the tent). The kids (Emmy – age 9, and the twin 7-year-old boys Austin and Andrew) each carry small backpacks to hold their clothes. My husband and I carry everything else. Fortunately, my husband is strong.
This time, we weren’t sure until the last minute whether we could go, because one of the twins had a head cold. But come Saturday morning, he announced that he was up for the challenge, so we immediately began bustling around to get everything packed. I sent the kids to their rooms to pick out their clothes for the trip, with a short list of what they would need. We emphasized that they should pack only the bare essentials. Fifteen minutes later I came upstairs to check on their progress and discovered that in addition to the short list of items they’d been told to pack, Andrew had also packed his fuzzy blue bathrobe, a large hard-cover book, and his favorite stuffed animal. Not exactly ‘the bare essentials’.
It was at this moment that I was struck by how my son, at such a young age, had become attached to a range of material items and had come to believe that these things should be classified as ‘essential’. Granted, at his tender age he was much more willing to separate from these items than I was, say, to separate from my blow-dryer. But his first instinct was to bring more than he needed.
Later that day, I had a more intense experience that challenged my conception of ‘essential items’. We had embarked on the trip knowing that there was a 40% chance of showers throughout the day – a risk we decided to take because we had so few free weekends this summer. We made the entire hike to the campsite in sunshine, but as we neared our campsite, the skies began to darken rapidly. Just as we began to unpack the tent, the skies opened up and it felt like someone was continuously dumping buckets of water directly on top of me. As the consummate city girl, my first instinct was to look for a nice awning to run under. Unfortunately in the middle of the Catskill forest awnings were in short supply. At that moment we lacked what is typically considered an absolute essential: shelter from the elements.
I took a deep breath, gritted my teeth and helped my husband set up the tent. By the time we were finished, the tent floor was sporting several small lakes where the water had gotten in before the tarp was set up. As the rain let up, I quickly changed into a dry-ish shirt, and my husband and I set up an assembly line to use our old drenched shirts as mops for the tent floor. Within ten minutes the floor of the tent was dry and shining like the top of the Chrysler building. (Ok maybe not so much, but I just saw Annie recently and I love that line).
My response to this event surprised me. It made me realize how when we are removed from our creature comforts it forces us to rise to the occasion, to plumb the depths of our creative problem-solving capabilities, to face our true selves.
Thinking about this trip over the past week, I’ve had an insight about a theme that I have always struggled with in the Gospels: the idea of leaving one’s possessions to follow Christ. This concept appears in numerous locations: first when Jesus calls the first disciples (Mark 1:16-20) – all of whom were fisherman. They all walk away from their fishing nets and boats – the source of their livelihoods – and follow Jesus without a second look. Then there is the story of the rich young man (Matthew 19:16-22) where Jesus says “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Of course, the rich man isn’t up for the challenge, which leads Jesus to his famous (and apparently mistranslated) claim about it being harder for a rich man to enter Heaven than a camel to go through a needle.
These passages are usually discussed in light of Christ’s focus on charity, social justice and on worshiping only God rather than material possessions. But this experience of living (albeit for a short period) with very little made me see these calls in another light. It made me realize that when we leave our possessions behind, it offers up the possibility of connecting to a more authentic version of ourselves. When we walk away from our home, our car, our job – when we are stripped of all of the superficial accoutrements that so easily define our identity, we are left naked in the blinding light of our true selves. That can be pretty terrifying (almost as terrifying as being stuck in a torrential downpour in the middle of nowhere). But ultimately the experience is enlightening, freeing. It opens the door to connecting more directly to God.
I’ll confess that I have always struggled with these passages. I have this nagging worry that living comfortably means that I must not be truly following Christ. I still think there is some truth to this worry, but I also feel that perhaps what is most important is, firstly, sharing generously with those in need, and secondly, acknowledging that what we have is not who we are. To find out who you really are, you gotta leave your possessions behind and follow Christ. You might find yourself in the middle of the woods in a rainstorm. And loving it.