Monday, November 9, 2009

I was pleased to see, when I got there, that they had kept that old, high slide, up on that stainless scaffolding. It was always high and steep enough to scare the bejeezus out of a junior high kid, and yet thrill him all the same. Of course, it seems smaller now, but it retains a certain bold highness.

It's at Forest Home, where my church held their annual Family Camp this past weekend. A couple years ago, when we were auditioning churches, the simple fact that the church often chose Forest Home as the destination for their youth camps garnered high marks from me, and kept me interested in attending with my family. I wanted my kids to go to Forest Home, if only because it's where I went, and it worked for me. It was there one week in August of 1982 where I had an authentic religious experience. It was an experience that was real enough, moving enough, and convincing enough that it has never ended, despite its (often daily) fits and starts, doubts and ecstasies, overwhelming losses and profound moments of redemption. From that moment during that summer at that camp, I have been cured of my most loathsome regrets and given hope to my dying day. It was a religious experience that only began there, is ongoing, and hasn't let up since.

I went to camp at Forest Home year after year, and on several occasions as a leader -though then it wasn't the same. Eventually I ended up out at Camp Fox, where so much history and devotion lies for me today. But I was never a camper at Camp Fox, so it always comes as a shock to those Camp Fox devotees when I speak of another place, a better place -or at least every bit as good- where I grew up going. Mrs. Ditchman, whom I met at Camp Fox, is one of those. She'd never been to Forest Home, so I was a bit nervous taking her, as I hadn't been back in 15 years or so. It all turned out all right. She approved. We had an excellent time.

The camps are just locations, of course, and are soulless and lonesome wastelands without the people who make them special. Our time last weekend was a sweet one being together in the forest, meeting some of the people of our congregation, and getting to know some church staff. It's hard to put in words what happens at these camps, but it's essentially a time of renewal, a time away from all that mess and noise of life so you can hear some of the things God's been saying. We had a first rate speaker, which would not have been my favorite element of the weekend if they hadn't provided inspiring and reliable childcare. But they did, and it was.

On second thought, no. My favorite part of the weekend was just being there at the camp with my family. The kids loved it. The Little Ditchman got to sleep atop a bunk bed and the Little Digger got to ride in the baby backpack. Though the unforgettable chocolate chip shakes of my childhood are now half the size and twice the cost, and though the camp is today all zip lines and climbing walls, (stuff that didn't exist when I was a kid) the same buildings are there. It's amazing that you can have so profound a love for a place. Being there was like walking through some old home where you grew up, where you took your first steps, though there's a different family living in it now, all the while loving it every bit as much as you did. I moved between the cabins and through the clubhouses, past the campfire rings and lodges, and down creekside paths through the forest, and I felt so many kid memories washing over me, stuff I couldn't help but share with my wife, who humored me with her patience, (as if she needed another child to tend to this weekend.)

Though it's just a camp, Forest Home is quite a place. In the picture above (click it to embiggen) you can see a cross and a tall rock in the right of the photo, on the far side of the lake. It's a nice, inspiring spot that overlooks the valley. There's a marker on that rock that mentions Billy Graham. The story goes that Graham was having a crisis of faith just as he was about to embark upon his historic evangelical ministry. Someone whom he respected had called him out on Darwinian evolution, among other things, and had accused him of committing "intellectual suicide" by his claiming that the Bible was the infallible word of God. Graham was at Forest Home at the time, just weeks before the launch of his famous crusade. He went out one night, threw his bible down on a stump, dropped to his knees, and prayed...

"O God! There are many things in this book I do not understand. There are many problems with it for which I have no solution. There are many seeming contradictions. There are some areas in it that do not seem to correlate with modern science. I can't answer some of the philosophical and psychological questions Chuck and others are raising."

I was trying to be on the level with God, but something remained unspoken. At last the Holy Spirit freed me to say it. "Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word by faith! I'm going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word."

When I got up from my knees at Forest Home that August night, my eyes stung with tears. I sensed the presence and power of God as I had not sensed it in months. Not all my questions were answered, but a major bridge had been crossed. In my heart and mind, I knew a spiritual battle in my soul had been fought and won.

-from 'Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham'

He almost quit. But he didn't, and soon after that he became BILLY GRAHAM, eventually #7 on Gallup's List of Widely Admired People, just behind Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and John F. Kennedy (#8 is the Pope.) He changed the world for millions.

So some places are just special, with all their thrilling, bejeezus-scaring moments. Even my mom went to Forest Home when she was a teenager, and at about the same time that Billy Graham was there, and now my wife and kids go. No intellect can honestly explain it away, but my faith makes sense of it all, and easily so.