The summer before my freshman year in high school, Nonnie and Granddad, my grandparents on my mother’s side, drove my cousin, Doug, and me from Phoenix, Arizona to Branson, Missouri in their chocolate brown Cadillac Seville. We were headed to a Christian sports camp tucked away in the lush green hills and rooted in the Christian fundamentalist tradition. Nonnie and Granddad had met in a hot dusty tent at a spiritual revival in Phoenix decades earlier, and they yearned for each of their grandchildren to come to faith. So, we packed the Seville and filled the quiet hours in the car—1,800 miles and three days—with Silly Putty, comic books and an Etch A Sketch each.
The camp, I learned soon after arrival, was decidedly muscular. The founder’s picture showed a tanned, smiling face and crossed arms with bulging biceps. Testosterone ran high; effort was everything. Campers chose two sports—a primary and a secondary—and we spent our mornings engaged in them. I chose cross-country and tennis. After a few days of limited instruction by staff, and very few other campers playing tennis or running, it dawned on me that the sports I’d chosen had secondary status in the camp hierarchy—too effete, perhaps. Football players, and other big, meaty contact sports campers, received a lot of attention.
After lunch, all the campers gathered for FUAGNEM, Fired Up And Going Nuts Every Minute, a pep rally before we headed into afternoon free time. At every FUAGNEM, the leaders gave out an “I am third” award—God first, others second, I am third—which I never won, much to my chagrin, because I worked mightily at serving others. (While self-sacrifice is a laudable goal, the dissonance of making it a competition only occurs to me now.) The concept of serving God felt a bit vague, to me at least. It got all mixed up with competitive effort, so one could sort of imagine Jesus showing up now and then for a good-natured push-up contest.
Sports and competition filled our days, but the heart of the camp was the nightly, post-sunset presentation. College-aged counselors, eager with expectation, herded us into a faux-wood paneled multi-purpose room, fluorescent lights humming overhead. Bible in hand and a map on the wall, the camp leader linked biblical prophecies to current events; Russia was “the beast,” as I recall. Though different in detail, each evening’s presentation told a slightly altered version of the same story: be prepared for the end of all things; it is near. Some people would be “raptured”—“taken up, in the blink of an eye”—while others would remain to suffer with those “left behind.”
Where did we want to be?
I found this mostly-new-to-me concept eminently plausible, even likely. The thought of the world’s end, of torment following an apocalypse, shook me. I wanted to avoid the cataclysmic events sure to come, and I certainly didn’t want to be left behind with all the losers, those who missed the message, who didn’t have the courage to follow Jesus. To do this, we were told we needed to “pray the prayer.” So, one night, on my knees at my bunk with hands clasped tight, I asked Jesus into my heart. I waited. Antsy and apprehensive by temperament, I couldn’t be sure that it worked, which understandably troubled me greatly.
Seeking out my kindhearted and soft-spoken cabin counselor, I asked, “Have I been saved?” wondering aloud if my prayer had been somehow deficient, wondering silently if asking the question betrayed a weakness of faith, a failure of commitment or strength of purpose. He reassured me: “That’s all you need to do. It’s done.” Unclear what I should experience, but wanting more, I pressed: “Should I pray again?” He replied gently, “No, that would show you don’t trust God. Really, Steve, you are saved.” It was a moment washed with ambiguity, equal parts expectation, excitement, and disappointment, and some small hope that I had done the thing right.
Manipulated into giving my life to Jesus?
The story goes that I returned from camp a changed person. “It’s like someone flipped a switch,” my mother later said. Kinder to my younger brother, less combative with my parents, deeply invested in church and Young Life, I worked hard, it seems to me in hindsight, to act as if the new self, the redeemed me, could be muscled into existence.
That effort foundered, as those efforts must, on the hard shoals of my own repeated failings. Looking back through a broken marriage, lost years piecing my life back together, and an increasing awareness of “things ill done, and done to others harm/which once [I] took for exercise of virtue,” (T. S. Eliot) I began to understand and experience salvation differently. Salvation cannot be grasped in a moment but, rather, requires a winnowing of the false—false selves, false gods, false hopes. Salvation is the long, painful process of Aslan’s hard claws removing Eustace’s dragon skin, because only then can Eustace feel the healing sting of a cool lake.
It would be easy, then, after many and ongoing skin sheddings, to deconstruct my original “conversion narrative”: a scared, impressionable kid, eager to please, was manipulated into giving his life to Jesus. On that reading, nothing happened, really. There was no metaphysical movement from the unsaved to the saved; no choir of angels sang. I certainly felt nothing.
Except it’s stuck in my memory, stubborn like a rock in my faith history. To ignore the experience as if it contained no truth, but the deconstructed truth, requires not a bit of hubris. In God’s economy, nothing is wasted. And it would be hasty to dismiss the idea that salvation can be contained—inchoate, mustard-seed-like—in a moment. Dante suggests that a single tear of repentance from Buonconte Giovanna in Purgatorio V was enough to save his soul from eternal torment. Sanctification certainly takes a lifetime, and then some perhaps, but justification—making things right between us and God—may happen in a moment and then be realized as a gift over time. Grace, of course, would be like that.
Moving—Infinitesimally, Gropingly, and Fearfully—Toward God in the Person of Jesus
What to do with that moment at camp? I could see it exclusively through cynical eyes. I could, even worse, smirk at it, and I’ve been tempted toward both. But in the end, cynicism is simply too easy and smirking is childish. Neither allow for the deeper truths of joy and beauty, and I experience those too. When I remember the young me on my knees at camp, I am thankful. The often forgotten truth of our fundamentalist forbears is that we are somehow lost and, like the prodigal, desperately need help coming to ourselves. At camp, I was told that I needed to be saved, which is demonstrably true, and that my decision mattered eternally. In response I moved—infinitesimally, gropingly and fearfully—toward God in the person of Jesus.
Forty years later I’m still seeking Jesus. Most often these days I am Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes, for whom Jesus moves, “. . . from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.” But I look for him, again and again, in word and sacrament, in the enigmatic but at times luminous figure of the Gospels and at the eucharistic table where I hear, with thanks: “Take, Steve, eat; this is my body, broken for you.” And if I experience him most deeply in longing and hope, rather than an immediate apprehension of his presence, still here Jesus is, haunting my thoughts and rummaging around in my life, offering the greatest of hopes that the prayer I started at camp will one day be answered face to face.
Cover image by Kyle Smith.