The night the die was cast
Bible camp was an important part of my early spiritual formation. I began attending Covenant Harbor on Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, when I was in fifth grade, attending for a week each summer through the tenth grade. I also recall winter Hi-League retreats at the Harbor. It was familiar space, an extension of my church home. While in high school, I worked one summer on the staff of the camp and years later served on its board.
I made many friends at camp, including Jack Lundbom, Jim and Paul Erickson, Dave Hanson, Richard Carlson, Ken Mott, and others whose names now elude me. Most of them were from other Covenant churches in the Central Conference. Some were later my classmates at North Park College, including Jack, my college roommate in my freshmen year and life-long friend. Jack and I also began seminary studies together at North Park a few years later. I went on to pastoral work after graduation; he moved on to further graduate studies in Berkeley and today is a distinguished Old Testament scholar.
As in the case of my home church, Covenant Harbor contributed in important ways to my spiritual development. It was the place where I made an identifiable commitment of my life to Christ, though I realize now that it was part of a process that began with the embrace of God when still an infant at the baptismal font at Rockford’s Bethesda Covenant Church.
At the evening services at camp, young people were often invited to make a conscious surrender of their lives to Christ. I was never comfortable responding to public invitations to go forward to signify a decision to follow Jesus, though, Lord knows, I said “yes” to Christ in my heart more than once. My reluctance to give a public display was partly due to timidity, but also because I kind of thought I had already boarded this train along the way. One summons, however, seemed to conform more to my comfort level.
One evening toward the end of one camp week, there was an outdoor service with a bonfire at the old Deer Pond at the Harbor. In the light of the fire, the camp pastor spoke about God’s love, our sinfulness, and how Christ was knocking at our heart’s door, gently asking for admittance. In his hands he held the gifts of divine forgiveness and friendship, and the promise of eternal life. Then the pastor invited us to throw a small piece of wood on the fire as a sign and seal of our desire to open our lives to this inviting Christ and follow him for the rest of our days.
I walked forward, rather self-consciously, I suspect, but with a good measure of adolescent sincerity, and threw my stick on the fire. There in the light of that blazing fire, I was dimly throwing my life on the mercy of God and accepting his call to discipleship, though I had little notion of what that all entailed. Like Moses’ encountering God in the burning bush, I was also confronting God there in this conflagration. Though I heard no divine utterances nor felt any inward rush of the Spirit, I sensed it was a holy moment and that this concrete cavity called the Deer Pond was indeed holy ground. I was embarking on a sacred journey, the nature of which I couldn’t fathom then, but knew with some assurance that heaven was where I’d wind up, and that seemed a desirable enough destination. As I left camp at the end of the week, the parting words of my counselor were: “Stick to your guns,” which I knew had something to do with being faithful and true to my resolve to follow Christ.
When I got home, I told my folks and my pastor about my decision. Some of the fire from that blaze of the Spirit at camp had entered me. I became quite serious, in a rather adolescent way, about my faith. I remember taking the bus to the Bible bookstore in downtown Rockford and buying a little red New Testament that I carried in my pocket, trying, as best I could, to make sense of its King James English. I had a new interest in the things of God, I guess you could say. Later in high school, I am afraid that spiritual matters became more marginal in my life, though in a real sense the die had been cast. The Rubicon had been crossed. Together with the influence of home and church, that event at camp set me on a course that affected my entire life.