Thursday, January 16, 2014

A journey, part 4: Whispers and campfires

This is part 4 of a story in five parts. Catch up here:
Part 1: Waiting for a sign
Part 2: A sinking feeling
Part 3: April showers

Photo by Doug Beckers

Quemahoning was the kind of camp Professor Stansell might have mocked as too evangelical. It was here at age ten my counselor told me I better say an official prayer to “accept Jesus” into my heart to be sure I was going to heaven. It was here at age fifteen I experienced a community of high-schoolers who weren’t afraid to lie under the stars and ask big questions of God and of themselves.

My first week back, I took twelve-year-old Bailey to play ping-pong. I asked about her family. When she didn’t say much, I launched into the easy diatribe I thought I was supposed to share: “God loves you so much; there is nothing you can do to separate yourself from that love.” The words, like a dented ping-pong ball, didn’t bounce. They landed flat at my feet and I saw that I still didn’t believe them.

I picked my way that summer through the ponderous book of Jeremiah—full of prophecies of sin and destruction—holding my grudge against God for being confusing and wrathful (if he was even real). I woke in the mornings and stared at the sun coming up over the lake. I asked God, why?

One evening, all the counselors huddled in Ellen’s apartment. Someone spoke about how Jesus died for our sins on the cross, how all our failures are accounted for. This is the core tenet of Christianity and the emotional heartbeat of evangelicalism. Many of the counselors cried tears of release and joy. I sat unmoved, bored.

The next afternoon, Ellen caught my arm as the campers rushed off to activities. “How are you doing?” We sat on the benches by the lake. For the first time, I let myself be angry. I thought of sitting alone in my room in in the spring, wishing someone would stop by.  “I don’t feel like a sinner!” I told Ellen. “I don’t feel like I’ve done anything wrong that Jesus has to die for. I just feel broken.”

Ellen reached for my hand and waited a long time as we watched the leaves quiver against the still water. Finally she spoke. “That lack of love you feel,” she began, “that is sin. Christ bore that pain, too.”


Trying a different approach, I shared the story of my difficult year with 14-year-old girls around a campfire on our overnight biking trip. “God is big enough to handle questions,” I concluded unconvincingly, pausing to blow on the coals of the campfire and down another roasted marshmallow. “Don’t pretend you don’t have any.”

The conversation returned to beef stew and farts. As the girls trickled off to their tents, I stayed to watch the fire die down. I shone my flashlight around the campsite to make sure all the food was put away. One girl continued sitting at the fire, staring at the coals.

I looked at her. “Not tired?” I asked.

She shook her head.

I poked at the coals again, and sat down to stare at them with her. It’s a good pastime.

“How can you believe in God,” she asked me, “when you aren’t sure he’s really there?”

I was suddenly acutely aware of my the pace of my heartbeat. This was important. Without knowing it, I had been waiting for a camper to ask me this question all summer.

“I want to believe,” she said, “but I don’t know if I do. And I could just say all that stuff is true, but maybe I wouldn’t mean it.”

I stabbed at the coals. I felt the pain still raw inside me. It hurts to want faith and not have it. To feel that a personal, loving God is both the most beautiful and preposterous of notions.

“Have you read the gospels?” I asked. She shook her head. “What I’ve found,” I said, “is that Jesus is a genius. Someone I want to follow. There’s something real in those stories.”

But it was only people who wrote the Bible. When I pray it feels empty. My life isn’t exactly the best right now. I want to be independent.

Her objections were mine. As I listened to her, I was listening to myself. “I don’t think it’s something anyone can figure out for you,” I finally copped out. “We all have to find God on our own.”

My heart hurt when I said goodbye to her a few days later.

That summer, it was 14-year-olds who reminded me that honest seekers yearn for God. It was music and campfires and whispers by the lake that reminded me there is a world apart from academic criticism. That honesty and vulnerability can be met with love.

By August, I could look out over the lake and see beauty. I could fall asleep content at the community of lovely people around me. I could pray quietly, thank you.

“This is how we know that he lives in us,” the apostle John writes. “We know it by the Spirit he gave us.”

My favorite part of the story happened in the beautiful land of Tanzania in East Africa.  Read about this in the final installment, Part 5.


  1. I've been reading these all week. Outstanding. Thanks for writing!

  2. Thanks John. I wrote a version of this a while ago and finally decided it was time to share! One more bit tomorrow.