Today I continue posting memoirs (see here for more), little tidbits of my life experience.
I can’t believe my parents are making me do this. It is Christmas break and the last thing I want to do is head away from home to spend time with a bunch of people I don’t know. Yet mom and dad have seen fit to send me for a weekend away at a little Reformed Presbyterian Church in Smiths Falls, four or five hours away from home. The church is holding a youth gathering running from Friday evening until Sunday afternoon. I do not know any of the young people at this church or at any of the others nearby. Really, the only light in the darkness is that they’ve sent my brother along as well, so at least I will know one person. Mom and dad must think I need to build my character or something. There is no other logical reason for sending me here. I’m so nervous I feel like I could throw up.
Dad drops us off and Andrew and I lug our suitcases, pillows and sleeping bags into the church’s sanctuary where the guys are taking up residence. It is already evening and there will be little time for formal programs before we need to get some sleep. I make the rather surprising discovery that many of the people in attendance have strange accents. Is it an East Coast kind of accent? A Newfoundland accent? It turns out that many of the people here come from the Ottawa Valley which must be the only place in Ontario that has its own regional accent. So here I am, stuck for a weekend with a bunch of yokel Reformed Presbyterians who will sing only Psalms and do not believe in instrumentation. Wonderful. After a quick meal and a brief talk from the pastor, we find an area of the floor to call our own and stuff ourselves into our sleeping bags. I sulk myself to sleep over occasional accented cries of “Garth!” coming from across the room. Who is Garth?
The next morning comes too soon and I gobble down some breakfast before heading back to the sanctuary for a time of teaching by the pastor. Like most sermons I’ve heard in the past, this one soon passes into oblivion, but there are a few points here and there that catch my attention and pull on my heartstrings, at least a little bit—rather a rarity for me. We sing some songs and while I can’t believe any church would want to sing only Psalms and do so without any instruments whatsoever, I am moved by the skill of those who sing and by their harmonizing. They do not have a lot of songs to choose from, but the ones they sing, they sing awfully well.
At lunch I am put on cooking duty, having to help a team of other kids make lunch. While heating up a giant pot of soup I meet someone who seems particularly friendly. Her name is Emily, she is from Syracuse, just across the U.S. border, and, rather strangely, is half Chinese and half Swedish (though, going by appearance, it seems that the Chinese genes are dominant). We have fun discussing the old wives tale that “a watched pot never boils” and that seems to prove itself as we wait interminably for that pot of soup to heat up. The weekend brightens just a little bit as I become familiar with at least one more face in the crowd. Emily introduces me to a few more and before long I am feeling a little bit more comfortable. I’ll be able to make it through the weekend.
In the afternoon we head to the great outdoors where we climb up a huge hill and spend an hour or two sliding down it on giant inflatable tubes. Cries of “Garth” continue to punctuate the fun. The freezing winter air does me some good. After the sliding we listen to more teaching and after that more teaching still, breaking occasionally to emphasize application. I learn with some dread that in the evening we will be doing a square dance. I cannot believe this. I’ve never danced in my life and have no intention of beginning this weekend. But before long we are in someone’s barn learning the steps and enjoying the music. It is far more fun than I would have imagined. It turns out that these Presbyterians are rather adept musicians (at least for a bunch who never get any practice in church) and can fiddle with the best of them.
By the time I climb back into my sleeping bag for another night’s sleep I have a lot to think about. I have grown up in a church where personal faith and personal holiness somehow takes a back seat to corporate faith and the conviction that we are saved even if our lives show little evidence. Going against the grain, mom and dad have often emphasized personal holiness and I come to the conclusion that they must have sent me here because I am exhibiting little of it. The kids at this conference are like none I’ve ever met. They seem to have a kind of faith, or a kind of joy and conviction to their faith, that is absent in my life. It is like nothing I’ve ever seen in my own church. I can’t deny a little bit of jealousy. There is part of me that wants to write this crowd off as weird (the easy choice), but another part that wants what they’ve got (the hard choice). What gives them this joy? How could they, at even this young age, really care about following God?
Sunday afternoon, my dad returns to take me home. When he asks how I enjoyed it I offer little more than, “It was okay.” But it was more than that. Something inside me has changed. For the first time I remember, I have a kind of longing inside—a longing for, well, something. Could it be a longing for God? For holiness? When my friends in mocking voices ask me how I liked the dreaded weekend away there is little I can say. They do not understand (at least not yet). I’m not so sure I understand either.
But it is not long after this weekend away that, almost by surprise, I find myself on my knees in my bedroom, begging God to be the Lord of my life. Whatever changes in me that weekend changes for good.
I guess mom mom and dad really do know best.
Postscript: Eventually I learned that the “Garth” whose named I heard time and time again that weekend was none other than Garth Brooks. Some of the people at the conference must have been big fans. This was the first I had heard of him and, though it took some time, eventually I, like so many others, began to enjoy his music. Of course it was but a short-lived thing that lasted no later than In Pieces, after which I grew tired of him. I haven’t listened to his albums for years, but my kids can testify that if they need help getting to sleep, they are likely to fall asleep hearing me sing “Cowboy Bill” or “In Lonesome Dove” or something else equally depressing.