I've just come back from what I think is my 25th CYFA holiday! I've now spent a total of more than six months of my life on a Venture.
The first time I went, I was pretty nervous about it. I didn't know what to expect, and I didn't know whether I'd manage to make friends with anyone. But it didn't take long for that to pass. Now some of my best friends are people I met on Ventures, and some of the others (including my wife) are people I met in a roundabout way on those holidays. God has also taught me, more than I can ever remember to thank him for. What's more, he has granted me the wonderful privilege of serving him through chatting with people, praying with people, washing up and pouring buckets of water on people's heads. Blessings all mine, and ten thousand beside!
Going to camp is now easy, and something I spend 51 weeks of the year looking forward to. What is much more difficult is coming home afterwards. While I'm away, I feel close to God and close to others, and there's no time to catch my breath, let alone get stuck for things to do. But suddenly I'm at home, and I remember how boring the real world is. Where did God go? Where did my friends go? What am I going to do for the next 51 weeks?
Post-camp blues are something that members, helpers, leaders and cooks all go through, and I don't have an easy answer. I think that when I find coming home from camp easy, that's when I'll know it's time to stop going. But there are some things you can do to make it just that little bit better.
Remember what God has done
I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. I thought about the former days, the years of long ago; I remembered my songs in the night. My heart mused and my spirit enquired: 'Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favour again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?' Then I thought, 'To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High.' I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds. (Psalm 77:1,5-12, NIV)
We tend to think of Bible times as being an endless flow of drama and miracle, as though every moment were an exciting demonstration of God's presence and power. But, of course, it wasn't like that at all. The Bible covers thousands of years of history, and most people's lives, most of the time, would have been quite ordinary.
The Israelites faced the same temptation we do: to forget what God had done for them. They constantly needed reminding to look back at how God had been faithful in the past so that they would trust that God would remain faithful in the future.
Coming back from a Venture can leave us so flat, and can leave God seeming so distant, that we quickly forget the blessings God rained down on us at while we were away. We start to wonder where God is. 'Will he never show his favour again? Has his unfailing love vanished for ever?'
We need to be taught to remember what God has done, both in history in sending Jesus, and in our own lifetime in the ways he has drawn close to us on camp and elsewhere. Meditate on how God has blessed you in the past, and use that to help you trust him for the future.
Anchor yourself in Jesus' blood, not your own feelings
When I see the blood, I will pass over you. (Exodus 12:13, NIV)
There are so many things on a Venture that can give you a sort of spiritual buzz. It is so uplifting to hear an inspirational talk, or sit around a camp fire late at night singing In Christ Alone with fifty of your friends. These are all good experiences, and God works through them to build us up and bring us closer to him. But they also have a significant danger: we can start to base our faith and our confidence on our own feelings. And when we come home and the feelings disappear, we start to question whether we're really Christians, or whether God really loves us. Feelings come and go; and if your confidence in God's love is based on feelings, it will come and go too.
When Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, they were told to kill a lamb and spread the blood on their doorposts. God was going to come through the land that night and bring judgement on the Egyptians by killing the firstborn son in every house. But for the Israelites the lamb would be a substitute: God would see the blood of the lamb on the doorposts, and pass over without killing the firstborn son.
I should imagine that many of the Israelites were very scared that night. They had seen enough of God's judgement to know that it was real. What if they didn't believe strongly enough? What if they didn't feel close enough to God? What if their faith let them down, and God brought judgement on them during the night?
But what saved the Israelites from judgement was nothing to do with their feelings. What saved them was not the strength of their faith but what their faith was based on: God had promised that he would pass over when he saw the blood. However scared they might have been, however faithless, God was faithful to his promise.
So with us. We are saved because God sees Jesus' blood and passes over. Our salvation is not grounded in the strength of our feelings but in the death of Jesus, our Passover lamb and our substitute.
Get involved with others around you
'You will all fall away,' Jesus told them, 'for it is written: "I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered." But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.' Peter declared, 'Even if all fall away, I will not.' 'I tell you the truth,' Jesus answered, 'today - yes, tonight - before the cock crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.' But Peter insisted emphatically, 'Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.' (Mark 14:27-30, NIV)
Peter began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them, 'I don't know this man you're talking about. Immediately the cock crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: 'Before the cock crows twice you will disown me three times.' And he broke down and wept. (Mark 14:71-72, NIV)
Part of what makes coming home so difficult is that we've been surrounded by other people for a whole week. There's always someone to talk to on camp. You come back, and suddenly you're on your own. The love and support you enjoyed so much is whipped away from under you, and it can be a very lonely place to be. The temptation then is to grit your teeth and tell yourself you'll get through the next couple of weeks on your own by sheer willpower: 'Even if all fall away, I will not.' Peter tried that; it didn't work.
The Bible never teaches us to go it alone. God made us to relate to one another, and to love, encourage and support one another. Jesus did not die to make you an individual Christian, but to make you part of his body. You won't survive apart from the rest of the body; you weren't designed to do so.
There isn't anything quite like a Venture for mutual encouragement. But unless you live on a desert island, there are other Christians near where you live who are important for your sanity and your continued growth. Get stuck into a church. Go to a youth group. Ring your friends and tell them what you learnt on camp.
Focus on God's word
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door-frames of your houses and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:6-9, NIV)
A week of reading the Bible together is brilliant, but it's not supposed to stop there.
Moses didn't teach the Israelites to have a quiet time, as though they should spend ten minutes each day thinking about God and then forget his word for the rest of the day. Moses taught them to saturate themselves with Scripture, and we should apply the same principles to our lives today. God's word is to be in our hearts, not just on our smartphones. It is to be our chief topic of conversation at breakfast, lunch and dinner, in the car, at school, and throughout the day. We are to scribble verses on our bedroom walls, and chisel them into our front doors (with our parents' permission, of course!).
Make it your business this week, this month, this year, to read your Bible till it falls apart. If you're not sure where to start, try Mark's gospel, and then the letter to the Colossians. If you're not sure how to read your Bible, ask your dorm leader to send you some Bible reading notes. If you'd like to get some yourself, you might like to try the Explore and Engage series. For something more crunchy that will take you through the Bible in a year, get hold of Don Carson's For The Love Of God. There are also plenty of online resources - Bible Gateway is a great site for reading plans and access to a wide-range of different translations of the Bible - and lots of useful smartphone apps - YouVersion is a good place to start!
And never decide not to read your Bible because you've 'done your quiet time today'. I promise you, the more you read it, the more you will learn to enjoy reading it. Talk to your friends and family about it. Meditate on it day and night. Write it up and down the road in alphabetti spaghetti. Nourish yourself from the food that God has given you.
Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land that the Lord promised on oath to your forefathers. Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you. Observe the commands of the Lord your God, walking in his ways and revering him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land - a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig-trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills. When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. (Deuteronomy 8:1-11, NIV)