Todd Bartlett's Thoughts on Grounding Elements

November 01, 2017

I have shared some reflections about important elements to our experiences at our camps and retreat center. The current list begins with the physical elements of: land, water, sky and fire.


During this first year I have had the privilege to tour all of our camp and retreat sites and to look at them through the lenses of the Executive Director. In the past I had seen these sites as a member of the Board and as a colleague when I was the director of the Collins Retreat Center. I have known for some time the life-changing ministry that we do at all of our sites. Now I have added the knowledge of the beauty and sacredness of every site and I am beginning to get a “feel” for the land.

When I tell those unfamiliar with our United Methodist Camping system about my work and the locations where we do ministry, they are shocked by the distances between our sites. Their surprise is an invitation for me to tell them about the unique character of our sites. Some are densely forested: Collins Retreat Center, Camp Latgawa and Suttle Lake.  Some sit in the valley surrounded by mountains: Sawtooth and Wallowa Lake.  And one stands on the edge of the churning Pacific Ocean: Camp Magruder.

Each of these sacred places provides the opportunity to engage and experience the mystery of God working in this world. They “ground” us so that we can find something familiar for our lives. Many of you know the need of having a place that you can return to where you might encounter God, a loving community, and the breath of the Holy Spirit. These sites provide an opportunity for all who sojourn on the land and to be aware of the movement of God in their life.

Many campers and guests have told me that when they cross the threshold of one of our sites they immediately feel a sense of ease and calm. I am convinced that during nearly 100 years of camping, with prayer, worship, music, and community-building, that the spirit of the people called United Methodist and the Spirit of God have conspired to create this sense of peace and calm on this land that we steward.

If you have visited any of our sites how has this Spirit spoken to you?  If you have not yet visited any of these sites, I look forward to hearing about your visit and how the Spirit speaks to you in your journey.


Waterfall at Latgawa

In the Pacific Northwest water plays in important role in our lives.  We measure how much rain falls on two different calendars! Here, we keep an eye on water flow rates in the rivers and we look for water content in the snowpack in the mountains.  Humans can survive a lot longer without food than we can without water (3 days according to items that I have read).  The bottom line is that we know our very existence depends upon water.

Because we know that water is so vital to our survival, research shows that we are more at ease psychologically when we know that there is a water source nearby.  That is why I suspect that the human race has camped and formed communities beside water (ocean, lake, pond, rivers and creeks).
Personally, I have a love and fear of water.  I learned to swim at a young age, canoed with my family, worked as a waterfront director and pool manager, built a kayak, and led kayak camps. I love being around water and appreciate its life-giving nature. And I understand the destruction water can cause. This year we saw it in Houston, the rest of the Southeast, and across the Caribbean. Water can just as easily sustain life as it can take life, hence my fear.

This two-fold element of water is talked about in our baptismal ritual: through our baptism we die and rise with Christ. We are reminded that we can be transformed and sustained through water. Our baptismal waters remind us to whom we belong and that they are not lucky charms shielding us from pain and grief. So, we join communities of faith and participate in camps, retreats, worship, and other communal acts in order that we might take action and that we might experience the joy and courage of living out our baptism.

All of our sites have bodies of water nearby: ocean, lake, river, or creek. I invite you to come to these waters and “drink” of them that your soul may be restored, and to be reminded of the tremendous power of water in your life.  As you rest beside these waters may you be sustained and encouraged to live fully into your baptismal promises with grace.


“Sand Castles” by James Rasmusson

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Genesis 1:1-2

I am moved by the beginning of our biblical story every time I read it. In this introduction, there is a direct connection between the activity of God and wind. I am always mindful that the biblical languages have only one word for breath/wind/spirit (“ruach” in Hebrew and “pneuma” in Greek). The ancients made a connection between the mystery of the Spirit and the moving air.  Unfortunately, our English language has separated these three things from one another and we no longer make the connection between spirit/wind/breath.

Like water, wind can also be a devastating force.  I grew up in Minnesota where strong thunderstorms and tornadoes were a regular part summer. This year, we have seen hurricanes do great damage to other parts of the country and around the world.  We also know that the wind fans the flames of forest fires creating very dangerous conditions.  For those who have been in Oregon a long time, the hallmark of wind storms is the Columbus Day Storm of 1962.

There are activities that are dependent upon wind: sailing, wind-surfing and all of its variations, birds flying on the currents, and flying a kite.  To think of all of these things brings a smile to my face and joy in my heart.  Being dependent upon the wind/breath of God in these activities connects me to my faith and to the world as a whole.    

The wind of creation, or the divine breath, reshapes our world in powerful and life-giving ways.  We can see the sand move on the beach, or the dust as it glides across the high desert, or the gathering snow  being formed into drifts.  Often, we see this scattering and re-gathering as an inconvenience to our lives, but I would invite you to look again and see the beauty that is being created with the wind’s help.  I would also like to suggest that we pay attention when the Spirit blows through our lives sifting the chaff and creating beauty that we did not consider possible.  

When I experience the wind (on the beach at Magruder, among the treetops at Collins, on Suttle Lake in the afternoon, in the valley at Wallowa Lake, along the river at Sawtooth, and alongside the pool at Latgawa) I am aware of being alive and that God is active in our world. What comes to mind when you think of wind? What is your memory of breath/wind/spirit shaping the world in which you live? How might you share that story with someone else?


Over the past few weeks I have been writing about the four natural elements that are essential to our experiences at camp.  These elements are: land, water, wind, and now this week’s element: fire.

Like water and wind, fire has the ability to cause destruction and to give life. In April of 1974 I was outside burning the trash (no, we don’t do this anymore) at our home outside Red Wing, Minnesota. I was frightened when the wind whipped up the fire and caused several acres to burn, although, thankfully, the house suffered no damage.  The prairie and forest were devastated, as were food sources and homes for animals.  The next spring beautiful native plants, which had been dormant for years, returned in their splendor.  Yes, while there had been devastation, now there was life!

We lament the destructive effects of fire, but if we wait, we can often see its benefits.

Of the four elements that I chose to include in this series I believe fire, specifically campfire, is the quintessential element of camp.  Among the elements, there is something qualitatively different about fire.  We feel its warmth on those cool evenings, we are mesmerized by its flames, and we are drawn into a community whose focal point is fire.  Our experience with fire in this context is a communal one.

The other elements may catch us by surprise and get our attention; to fire we give our attention. It becomes the center of our gathering as we join together around the fire in a circle. In this circle our corporate identity is formed: we tell and hear stories, we sing, we pray, and we are touched by the strength  of community where we are embraced for who we are welcomed completely.  We feel the warmth of both the fire and the community.

The community is larger than those who have gathered at camp for that session. We are joined to the larger cloud of witnesses when we connect campfire to the experience of the disciples on Pentecost ,that of John Wesley who felt his heart “strangely warmed”, and all those who have met around the fires at all of our sites. May you be a part of a community, where your heart is warmed, and may your life be on fire without being consumed.



© 2014 Camp and Retreat Ministries:

A partnership between The Oregon-Idaho Conference of The United Methodist Church
and The Episcopal Diocese of Oregon