An Unforgettable Campfire

The following essay was written for a writing class at MBI that I took. I thought it would be fun to share it here at the blog. It’s basically the story of my conversion.

I go back and forth when it was that I actually “got saved”. I prayed with my dad at the age of eight to receive Christ after he shared the gospel with me.

Even then I understood that I was a sinner in need of a savior, but it wasn’t until later when the fruit of that prayer became apparent.

I was thirteen when the Lord really changed me personally in a powerful way. That’s what the following narrative essay is about. I hope you enjoy.

Fancher 1
Joel Fancher
Professor Muldoon
September 11, 2012
An Unforgettable Campfire (Final Draft)

Sixth grade was a catastrophe. Until then I had been getting good grades, and I was a happy kid for the most part. But once that first awkward year came, things quickly changed. Grades were harder to keep up; I was easily distracted by trivial things. I was searching for answers to the harder questions of life, and I desperately needed something real to help me make sense of my world.

There was one particular night where I felt like I was being sucked into a black hole. After a long day of school, followed by after-school activities, I came home with a heavy backpack and a heavy heart. I barely completed all my homework in time for dinner, only afterwards to quickly retreat to my bedroom. My parents, being perceptive and patient, knew something was wrong.

I remember it well. The gentle knock at my door was my mother’s, and I knew it even before I heard her voice. Her gentleness was always strikingly powerful, somehow filled with both love and authority. I invited her in, knowing my hiding place would let her know that something was indeed up. I laid under my bed in a state.

To my mom a sixth grader’s emotions were still real, no matter how mature they were. Empathy still mattered to her in spite of the circumstances; therefore, she crawled under the bed to join me. She asked me what was wrong and I replied with words that not many sixth graders say. I told her that I was confused about God and what was true. I speculated that if my parents had been Buddhist, I would also have been Buddhist; if they were Muslim, I would also have been Muslim, and so forth. With tears I said I wanted to know God for myself, personally and experientially.

Mom affirmed what I said, and that I needed a personal touch from the God she personally knew herself. Mom’s loving words comforted me. Afterwards, as she prayed and invited me back into the world above my bed, a sense of peace surrounded the rest of my evening. But mom knew I needed something more. She told dad that some extended time with him, away from the house, would be an important, timely connection. The next day I found out that they had planned a weekend camping trip for me, dad, and our close family friend David.

David knew a lot about the mountains of Arkansas. The Ozarks, one of the country’s oldest mountain ranges, was a prime place for camping, and David knew just the spot. Nestled in the gorge of the Buffalo river, about thirty minutes away from any signs of life, were several hundred acres of land, owned by David’s family. Dad, David, and I piled into the truck, headed north, and asked God for good weather.

The rocky, dirt road that lead us down into the gorge ended at a flat, small space under the trees. It was this rugged neighborhood’s only cul-de-sac, scarcely knowing any automobiles, and it was our campsite for the weekend. My dad intentionally brought his guitar and intentionally left the tent at home. We were camping like cowboys with the starry sky above us as our tent ceiling, and the earth below us as our only bed. If there was one particular event in my upbringing formative to my faith, this was it. But I didn’t know it yet. I was thrilled just to leave town, enjoy some campfire roasted veggies, and be with some men that I greatly respected.

The first thing I noticed when we arrived was how different things sounded. There were no noises of familiar urban life with its train whistles and sorry sirens; no delivery trucks with their diesel tanks humming in the distance. All I heard was Arkansas’ native sound scape of the wild. The Buffalo river was singing in the distance, large sycamore trees were buzzing in the breeze all around us, and unseen movement on the forest floor played rhythms nearby.

After we set up camp and built a roaring campfire, it was time for dinner. John Wayne would have been proud of that southwestern supper. Before we left town, we marinated some chicken breasts in a chipotle sauce to be grilled over the hot coals, along with a variety of roasted vegetables in a makeshift oven made of aluminum foil. After the main course, David had the great idea of an apple pie-ish dessert. We fashioned another fireside aluminum roaster where we placed apple slices doused in brown sugar, cinnamon and butter. When done, these sweet, roasted apples were candy that fell apart in your hands, then melted in your mouth. In this moment every 5 star restaurant in the world was embarrassed that they even existed. Nothing had ever tasted as good as this meal. Or so I thought. The meal was not yet over.

With full stomachs it was now time for the actual main course. I was oblivious to what God was about to do. Dad unpacked his guitar and simply began to strum a few simple chords. I had grown up with dad playing music around our house, he played at our church on Sundays and he played at special family gatherings. This occasion was nothing new to me, as I had heard him play thousands of times before.

Elated, I began to feel myself release the cumbersome weight of adolescence. This was real, objective life. The wild was indifferent to the common pressures of a sixth grader. It cared not for the styles of Saved by the Bell and Beverly Hills: 90210. These undomesticated woods compelled me to get outside of myself and to look up at the God who made them. Thinking of this experience brings to mind something I later read by Dr. John Piper, where he asks the question, “Do people go to the Grand Canyon to increase their self-esteem? Probably not. This is, at least, a hint that the deepest joys in life come not from savoring the self, but from seeing splendor.” And this was my experience that night in northwest Arkansas. I began to shrink as my small thoughts of God began to grow larger. This didn’t happen from looking within me; rather, the disappearing of self happened as I lifted my eyes and looked outside of me.

With my dad’s guitar accompanying them, the sounds of this outdoor sanctuary continued to come alive. The campfire, now glowing brighter as the evening grew darker, was mesmerizing. But it wasn’t the fire that captured my attention. Something I had never experienced before took place. As dad started to sing a popular praise song, I found myself singing along in a way that was different. I had heard the song before, but I had never actually thought about what it meant. And as I sang, my understanding was illuminated. The words were simple:

Father in heaven, how we love you, we lift your name in all the Earth.
May your Kingdom be established in our praises, as your people declare your mighty works.
Blessed be the Lord God almighty, Who was and is and is to come
Blessed be the Lord God almighty, Who reigns forevermore.

I began to experience the Presence of God for the first time in my life. His nearness was tangible. With it came an experiential understanding that passed mere cognitive intellection. At the same time, His other-worldly transcendence overwhelmed me with wonder. Indeed, I had tasted and seen that the Lord is good (Ps 34.8). Each of those troubles back home began to get significantly smaller and smaller.

The mighty works that were mentioned in the song surrounded me. Thousands of acres, teaming with creative life were singing along with us, declaring the glory of God’s grace. And sitting directly in front of me, was a dad who loved me and knew that I needed this experience. My dad was a true gift from God that I had taken for granted. He actually loved me unlike many of the dad’s I would often hear about at my school. Both of my parents loved me enough to create an environment where the Lord could easily access my hard heart. It was the meaning of the whole trip, and it was right before my eyes.

For the first time I actually felt myself worshiping God personally, with a softened heart, hungry to know Him more. This newborn miracle within me was another one of his “mighty works”. I realized in that moment, that God the Father was singing over me, his child. The gospel became clear at last.

The weeks that followed were completely new and exciting. I went to the same school, was tempted by the same pressures, yet all along I walked with Jesus. I was hungry to pray and read the Bible. I never had that desire before. His presence was an increasing reality, and in every season of difficulty as I grew up, Jesus’ firm grip never let go of me. He rescued me to be in awe of Him and put Him on display to the world around me. Jesus was the fourth guy at that unforgettable campfire, and I was forever changed.