“A Journey to the Mountain”

The Rev. Dr. Theodore F. Schneider is Bishop Emeritus of the Metropolitan Washington DC (ELCA) Synod. He served as the first director of Camp Mount Luther during Summer 1963. Prior to being at Camp Mount Luther, he was involved in Camp Juniata, a predecessor to CML. He served on the site selection committee and shared in the committee process that selected a name. He worked with the architects on the design of Maple Village, helped oversee construction, and selected, trained, and supervised the first summer staff.  Schneider went on to serve several parishes in Pennsylvania and Maryland and was elected bishop in 1995, serving until 2007. He and his wife, Doris, reside in Maryland in their retirement years.  

Bishop Schneider has spoken often at celebrations for Camp Mount Luther’s birthdays. The latest was on June 30, 2013, when we celebrated the 50th anniversary with an open house, meal, and worship service. Here is his sermon.

sermon transcript


Mountains and Other Holy Places

The ancients had all kinds of names for their god, and most had many gods. Many had a god for virtually every possible human need and circumstance.

But what instantly cut the Hebrews out of the pack was this: “Hear, 0 Israel, the Lord your God is one God, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4.) A second was the word “hesed.” It meant that their God loved them by doing “caring things” for them. Their God was not one of “executive privilege,” but one who did caring things for them in justice, righteousness, and even delivering them out of slavery and exile. This God would love the world so much that he would send his Son. How very different from their ancient contemporaries

Even so, there was one area of agreement. For most, the gods lived in the heavens. Therefore, high places were holy places. The Sumerians in the time of Abraham built high towers, 300 feet or so, into the heavens. In fact, the Akkadian name for these towers, which archaeologists call Ziggurats today, was “gate of heaven!” Thus, any high place was a holy place, especially mountains.

Moses met with God on Mount Sinai, and came down with the Ten Commandments, twice! The prophet dreamed of the day when all nations would say: “come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord … and not learn the art of war anymore.” (Isaiah 2: 3-4) Jesus went to the Mount of Olives to pray, and Jesus went to Mount Tabor (we think), the Mount of Transfiguration, and met with Moses and Elijah. The writer of II Peter gives us a first-hand account:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.

In 1963 we same to this mountain, a place apart …  an old, abandoned fruit farm. It would be a place we would call Mount Luther Camp and Conference Center. It would be a gathering place for children, youth, adults, and yes families. It would be for us something of a new idea in both philosophy and in program.

We Had a Dream!

We would in no wise place our Mount Luther “dream’ in the same context as Dr. King’s speech in 1963, but it was a dream. And it intended to change the way we were doing some things for our synod, for our program, and for our campers.

For the synod we dreamed of having enough camping beds to have a space for every confirmation aged youth in our synod. (In short order, shrinking synod budgets and affluent camping competition would make that a less attainable goal.)

For the synod, it was our first experience in “small group camping.” I had been sent to training programs and what I believed were really “survival camps” with learnings and experiences I have not yet forgotten. We believed this would be the future for church summer camping. Our first season surely enhanced that expectation. By Easter of the following spring, Mount Luther was fully registered and building a waiting list!

For the synod, our leaders/counselors were carefully selected, mostly college upperclassmen or graduates and some were public school teachers with a few years of experience. For the first time they were paid and given a day off each week between camp gatherings. And they were trained in the program and the curriculum. The full staff spent a week in orientation on site at Mount Luther doing the things we would be doing with our campers, learning both theology and skills.

For our program, we would gather and work all week in small groups of 18, gathering eight boys and eight girls, plus two adult and well-trained leaders/counselors. It was no longer necessary or desirable to have camp gatherings sorted by age, week by week. In one week, we could have all three ages (in those years, Juniors, Intermediates and Seniors) in the same week so long as we could build individual working, living, and sharing groups. It was thought to be an advantage to have a group of seniors and a group of juniors, in camp together. The older age of one group could set expectations and lead a younger group.

For our campers, the theme that first year was “The Church- God’s Gathered People.” The goal was to understand ourselves as God’s baptized children, as God’s “ecclesia,” God’s gathered, set apart, and purpose filled people, building upon I Peter 2:9:

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who has called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people. “

For our campers it was the challenge of growing from 16 campers in each group into the experience of “ecclesia,” a living, working and purposeful community. This was no small matter!

For our campers, the entire program would be new. There were no fixed schedules even for meals. There was no flag to raise, no pre-breakfast morning dips in the cold lake (for a while there was no lake!). There were no permanent ball diamonds, and no fixed pathways through the woods, not for a while, at least. Camping groups determined their own schedules for each day … a thing that nothing in the culture of that day afforded. The first day or so was a panic day when we had 18 individuals, all wanting to do something different!

Quickly each group learned that this was going to be a long week until there was some pulling together. But week after week and group after group, it happened! They built homes in the woods, cooked their meals out in the woods, challenged other groups to sports events, and they would engage in discussions about the Church, the Sacraments, and their roles and the meaning of their experience in their home congregations.

Did it work? I think so. Where else would the camp director be called into a circle in the woods to help explain “ecumenism,” or “eschatology” or “simuljustus et peccatur?” or, “Can God really forgive me when I have really done something bad?” Yes, these things happened. And there were invariably those late Friday evenings, when the small director’s office would overflow into the dining hall with crying campers because the week was over on Saturday morning!

The Central Question and the Setting of Goals

We had begun our staff training week with a question, asked in the setting of a busy contractor trying to have our first cabins ready for the first week. “Why is the synod spending a couple hundred thousand dollars to build a camp? There are YMCA and YWCA camps, Boy and Girl Scouts camps, the camps in the Poconos, and all the rest. Gradually in a circle in the woods, as we carved walking sticks and sharpened pocketknives, the answers came together.

  • Because we are This is the Church. Our purpose is clearly to know and learn Christ and the Church.
  • We are the called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified people of God, the “ecclesia” — the Church as the called out and set apart people of God would be our theme.
  • No, we don’t believe that God is worshiped in nature, but we believe that God has created the world and all that is in These woods are part of God’s creation. But, they are not the whole story.
  • We have one unique new message, not so clearly seen in the That message is the cross and Christ’s resurrection. One sees awesome balance in creation, but forgiveness is not so clear in nature. God is continuing at work not alone in creation, but in loving us, forgiving us, and giving us the opportunity to grow in His forgiveness.
  • This is a place where we can concentrate “on ” If a teen attends Sunday School every Sunday without missing, that amounts to 52 hours of learning per year, but they are not contiguous hours. In camp, we have a week of 12-hour days (and with youth there are often more!). This totals 72 contiguous living, learning hours. That’s a year and a half of perfect attendance, with no catch-up time needed between the hours!

Some Thought We Were Nuts!

While there was a great deal of excitement across the synod about the opening of a new camp, not everyone was equally enthused about the new format. Most of the least enthused, at least it seemed so in the beginning, was our Mount Luther Managing Board. They thought we were nuts! No flag? No wake up bell or bugle? No morning dip? No cabin inspections? No “light out” hour? The questions were endless, and sometimes painfully pointed!

Well, now it is 50 years later. It can be seen clearly that in some things we surely were nuts. Over the years some things have worked well and others, perhaps as Chad Hershberger can tell us, not so well, or were long ago abandoned.

From a recent radio interview of our director, I learned that small groups and community building are still a mark of what is done here, and Christ and the Church are central to what we believe and share.

We knew in the short term that what we were doing was being well received. Those Friday night sessions with grieving homebound campers were eloquent in that regard. Now it is fifty years later. Those first campers are likely to have become parents and even grandparents by now. Some of their children have no doubt been campers at Mount Luther.

I recall a note received, near the close of our first season, from a senior camper from Trinity Lutheran Church in Lansdowne, PA. Her note was something like this:

Dear Pastor Ted:

I wanted to let you know how things have gone for me since I came home from Mount Luther. When I arrived home, I learned that my father had died just the day before. I cried and cried. After a while, I remembered our campfire at Mount Luther the night before we left. Our counselor Ray read from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans. I looked until I found the passage: “What shall we say to these things? If Christ be for us, who can be against us? … For I am persuaded that neither death nor life … nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.” Since neither death nor life can separate us from Christ, then in Christ my father and I are still together, and it will always be that way. Thank you for my week at Mount Luther.

For many years I carried this letter with me. In the several moves along those years, I have lost it, but I shall never forget it.

1963 was the year of the Kingston Trio and popular songs like “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Mate.” It was the year one of our Gemini series astronauts was stranded alone in space with a computer meltdown and we held our breath collectively as mission control counted a disciplined cadence for the firing of the retro rockets. It was for our astronaut a matter of life and death.

1963 was the year when The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King led the March on Washington and preached his legendary sermon”/ Have A Dream!” The citadels of segregation were shaken!

1963 was the year the Church came to this mountain believing that with the presence of God’s Holy Spirit and the shared faith of our leaders and the dialog of our campers in community. we could experience together “Ecclesia,,” enriching lives and in a few cases amending and rebuilding them as the called-out people of God.

We had a dream fifty years ago, and Mount Luther has continued to live in that dream, building upon it and perfecting it for each new decade and generation. God has blessed this mountain with the dedication of leaders, staff, and supporting congregations and synods.

Today’s text read in part: “Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” We did not and do not expect folks to be transfigured on this mountain, but we know and continue to expect that lives will be transformed, from kindergartners to adults! This same God is not alone “our help in ages past,” but also” our hope for years to come/”

Let us move on into another fifty years in God’s awesome grace, celebrating the lives that have been and are yet to be renewed and strengthened on this mountain!