RITE OF PASSAGE: Camp memories
Winter has set in here in Tulsa, and we know it will be awhile before Mister Sun hangs around long enough to warm the Earth. On a cold night, nothing is more comforting than sitting close to the fireplace hearth, feet propped up, listening to the pinesap pop and snap as it burns.
Fires and I have a long-term relationship. It all started at camp. Some of my favorite memories involve sitting around the campfire roasting marshmallows and singing. When I was growing up, our church took the “Intermediates” to Camp Grand Oaks outside of Chillicothe, Mo.
I have written about this camp before, teasing that each cabin was named after one of the Seven Deadly Sins. I have to admit, it was the only camp I ever attended where Arts and Crafts included painting the camp director’s house. Still, going to camp was a huge part of my life. The things I remember-and don’t remember-surprise even . . . me. I couldn’t tell you the name of a single preacher who spoke there, but I do remember that camp was divided between “Bible Time” and “Fun Time.” Come to think of it, I never could understand why Bible Time couldn’t be . . . fun.
Most of all, I remember the singing. At camp, we sang every kind of song imaginable. Do you remember “Little Cabin in the Woods?” It goes something like Little cabin in the woods, Little man by the window stood. Saw a rabbit hopping by, knocking at his door. “Help me, help me, sir”, he said, “or the hunter will shoot me dead.” “Little rabbit, come inside. Safely you’ll abide.”
Camp songs had several unwritten rules. The first was that every fun song must be accompanied by a set of creative hand motions. A song didn’t even qualify as a camp song if it didn’t require you to make silly hand gestures while you sang it. The second rule said that each time you sang the song, you had to sing faster and faster until all the words ran together. The third rule was that the faster you sang, the faster you had to do the hand motions.
When we promoted from Children’s Camp to Youth Camp, another rule applied: all camp songs must involve bodily contact. So out came songs like “Lean on Me.” As a hormonally imbalanced junior high boy, the closest I ever came to committing a sin without actually sinning was leaning against a girl’s body during a camp song. That was almost as difficult as holding hands while praying. How could I concentrate on talking to God while my hand was sweating and my heart was pounding? I decided that when you were spiritual enough to hold a girl’s hand and pray at the same time, you qualified as . . . a camp counselor.
After the final service of the day, we were ready for the more serious spiritual songs. All of the young people sat on logs by the campfire to sing “Kum Bay Yah.” I don’t know how many verses that song has, but there always seemed to be . . . one more. We sang and stared into the fire until we were almost hypnotized. After many years of camp experience, I have decided that this was the counselors’ way of getting us to sleep at night. Of course, the last rule of campfire singing was that you couldn’t finish the night without “Pass It On.” Yes, It only takes a spark to get a fire going. And soon all those around can warm up to its glowing . . .
To this day, whenever I sit in front of a campfire, I have an overwhelming desire to burst into a song accompanied with hand motions. But do you know what I remember most about camp? Jesus. You see, camp is where Jesus found . . . me. I hear people talk about finding Jesus, but the reality is that He is the One who seeks the sinner. There at camp, I realized that there was something missing in my heart. There at camp, I asked Him to become my Savior and Lord. There at camp, I went down on my knees as a lost man condemned to eternal separation from a Holy God. There at camp, I stood up as a son of the Most Holy. There at camp, my destiny was changed and my life became. . . His.
Yes, as I sit looking into a fire, feeling the warmth of the flames, another warmth spreads through my soul: “At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light.” Even after all these years, a fire and a song still go together.