Camp Songs

Time to get this blog going again!

I’ve just returned from a couple of days at one of the ELCA’s camps in Southern California, Camp Yolijwa/Luther Glen in the mountains near Oak Glen, California. It’s a beautiful place, facing west in the saddle between two areas of the San Bernardino Mountains. I accepted the gracious invitation of Glen & Lauri Egertson, the co-executive directors of Lutheran Camps/Conferences/Retreats (LRCC) to talk with their summer camp counselors about the subject of music.

I came up the night before to get a sense of the developing community – where these young adults were at, how they were relating, and so on. I was immediately welcomed, accepted, and funneled into the activities. What a great object lesson about how we make such broad generalizations about “youth” or “young adults” without even taking the time to hang out with them and let them lead for a change.

Glen and I had talked earlier about something I’d mentioned to him about how the human brain processes music differently from many other things, and he wanted me to relate this information to the counselors as well as some pointers about worship planning.

I sat in on a couple of small-group sessions and discovered that these counselors were going to be largely on their own when it came to worship. There is a set pattern of worship for camp – campfire worship and morning worship – and each has a different shape and trajectory, while remaining centered on worship of the Triune God. The counselors are given the various elements and tools, but it’s up to them to put worship together each day that speaks to the campers in their care and nurtures them spiritually.

The degree of awesome that this is, is hard to describe. Young people preparing worship for – young people. Part of the tools they are given is time spent with us not-so-young people, to relate some of our experience and knowledge (and hopefully wisdom) in serving the people of God. I was honored to share the agenda with Pastor Holly Johnson, Director of Admissions at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) who led a workshop on service and leadership, and Pastors Heidi Hester and Tim Philips, assistants to the bishop for the Pacifica Synod of the ELCA, who led a session on Lutheran Theology.

As part of my time, I related a brief overview of some of the research that’s been conducted on how the brain processes music. As most of us know, the brain is divided into two hemispheres, the left and right. The left hemisphere is the logical, linear sphere, whereas the right hemisphere is more spatial and relational. Both hemispheres process information from the same sources in many instances, but in different ways.

In music, the left brain makes more informational assessments of things like meter, tempo, timbre, resonance, and other technical aspects. The right brain, on the other hand, assesses what those things mean on an emotional level. The left brain also processes lyrics – language – but more from a vocabulary-list type of angle; the right brain is absorbing the emotional meanings and depth of those lyrics.

The result is a single item processed deeply on both sides of the brain. Music with lyrics has the potential, therefore, to lodge deep in our psyches. Research has shown, for example, that people who suffer a stroke on the left side of the brain may no longer be able to recall words for speaking, but are able to recall those same words when paired with music in a song from their past.

What does this mean for the counselors? Simply put – their music choices for worship make a difference. The campers with whom they’ll be working generally come from a wide background of religious experiences (if any) and if there’s one thing people of all ages need to hear, it’s that they are a beloved child of God. We talked about how some songs can give the wrong impression – for example, that we need to do something before God can accept us.  This is contrary to what we believe as Lutherans, which is that God acts first to claim us as God’s own.  God’s acting first is not based on anything we’ve done or failed to do, but is a gift freely given.  We also talked about how songs learned at camp will remind the campers of the experience – a sensory recall – that can become very powerful.

We sang songs, shared stories, broke bread, and had great discussions and questions throughout the day. What a gift these young folks are to the church and to the world! They’re not afraid to ask the hard questions, tackle complex issues, and just to keep it balanced, sing very silly songs at the tops of their lungs.

I’ve not had much occasion to work with young people, other than when I taught music and liturgy at a Catholic school some years ago. I’ll tell you this much – I’ll be looking for more such occasions. Forget that old saying “youth are the future of the church” – these fantastic young adults ARE THE CHURCH.

Here’s a track of one of the songs I taught – “I Will Not Let You Go” by the talented duo of Aimee and Joel Pakan, known as Tangled Blue. It’s Lutheran theology in a melodic nutshell. Enjoy!