Monday, January 11, 2016

Church Camp

Growing up my main social settings, other than home and school, were Boy Scouts and my church youth group. Every summer between 7th and 12th grade, I went to two summer camps. Our scout troop would do summer camps in different locations, but church camp was always at Falls Creek in the Arbuckle Mountains of south central Oklahoma. According to their web site Falls Creek is "the largest youth camp in the world each summer with over 50,000 annually attending the eight youth weeks." That's a lot of kids!

Back in my era between 1979 and 1985, I met kids from all over Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas at Falls Creek. The Falls Creek staff, church staffs, and many volunteer parent chaperones invested their time and energy helping us kids have a great summer camp experience. I appreciate them for contributing to the development of many kids like me who benefited from the good moral values they poured into us. For the most part, church camp was a ton of fun too. I have a lot of great memories, but I was fairly introverted back then so meeting new people was also intimidating. Church camp wasn't all fun and games, at least not for me.

Oklahoma, like my native state of Texas, gets extremely hot in the summer. The large group meeting pavilion at Falls Creek had no air conditioning. They had some fans, but the heat could be stifling. The camp dress code enforced modesty, but also contributed to our suffering: no shorts or tank tops for the boys, and very modest attire for the young ladies. And just to be sure our pubescent minds wouldn't lust at the swimming pool, the boys and girls had segregated swimming times. I remember sweating a lot at church camp. Maybe they wanted us to get a tiny taste of the suffering in hell fire if we didn't repent. 

Our youth pastor did a really good job of recruiting kids for church camp. We always had many campers who weren't regular church attenders. Our youth pastor was a former jock, so he worked at getting the athletes and cheerleader types to come to camp. I guess he related better to those kids. I didn't. I was a book worm and a bit of a nerd who hung out with the "brain" clique at school. I didn't fit in with the "popular kids" he recruited for church camp, and contributing to this awkwardness was my lack of school friends at church.

My social circles of school, church, and Boy Scouts didn't intersect, and I wasn't very social anyway. I didn't have any friends that were in all three groups. Most of the kids at my church went to a different school than I did because my church was located within a different school district. There were a handful of kids from my school at my church, but most of the youth group attended the rival schools across town. I was also somewhat of a loner, so I never felt like I fit in. I felt like an outside observer more than a participant a lot of the time.

One of the observations I made was the annual repentance parade at church camp. Many of the kids were not regulars at church, so they didn't get regular doses of altar calls like I did. A full week of emotional altar calls would convict many of these kids about their ungodly behavior, so they would repent at church camp and either "get saved" if they hadn't before or "rededicate" if getting Jesus in their heart hadn't previously worked. All manner of evil would be forsaken at church camp.

Those of us who didn't have as much to confess would forsake listening to our evil rock music or petty lusts, but the really brave kids would confess and forsake doing drugs or having sex with their boy or girl friend. The bigger the sins and more radical the confession, the more attention they received from the youth director and adult leaders. The last night at church camp was always a big kumbaya love fest filled with singing, crying, hugging, and all manner of teenage emotion about how we were all going to be great friends at school. We'd all promise to stop the social cliques and "set the school on fire for Jesus." There was usually some sort of pretense toward reconciliation among this newly formed community of faith, but the new social structure never emerged.

I have to confess I got caught up in this repentance parade myself. Southern Baptists are pretty good about working the guilt and shame angle, and one year we even promised we would burn all our evil rock music. Those were the days when backmasking was a big controversy, and we didn't want to give the devil a foothold in our tender youthful hearts. The thing that bothered me most about the repentance parade and anticipated "revival" in our school is it never seemed to stick, and the social cliques would revert back just as they had been before. The Breakfast Club effect is fiction. Jocks, brains, pretty people, and outcasts (we called them "freaks") just don't mix in American teenage life. I raised three boys who went through pretty much the same thing in their teenage years. In fact, it may be worse today with social media and the internet.

These youth group experiences were the beginning of the end for me and organized religion. The temporal results and emotional appeal altar calls based on subtle shame and guilt wreaked havoc in my young psyche, and when I went off to college in 1985, I walked away from church and God completely. As Paul Harvey would say: Here's the rest of the story.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Get Jesus In Your Heart

As mentioned in an earlier post, I grew up in a Southern Baptist church-going family. All my life I heard preachers giving emotional appeal altar calls to "ask Jesus into your heart." As a little kid, I had a lot of questions about this process. How did Jesus get in there? Since God is everywhere, and since Jesus is God, I was able to process this logic equation enough to not be worried about him being in all those hearts at the same time. However, what really did worry me was whether or not Jesus was *really* in my heart. I couldn't feel him in there most of the time.

I was told that when I did bad things and felt bad about doing them, that was the Spirit of God living in me. I figured this guilt feeling must be Jesus in my heart. If I wasn't feeling guilty, then I doubted if Jesus was still in my heart, and that was troubling because of the Rapture. The pastor assured us that if Jesus was *really* in your heart, he would never leave. It is a good thing I was Southern Baptist which taught "once saved, always saved." If I'd grown up believing you could lose your salvation, I'd have had even more anxiety than I already did because our preacher kept on preaching about being sure of your salvation. Other people seemed so sure about Jesus in their hearts, but I just didn't feel him in there most of the time.

If you haven't heard of the Rapture, then buckle up because this is going to sound really weird. In my child like understanding, the Rapture was when all the people with Jesus in their heart were going to suddenly disappear and go to heaven, and it could literally happen at any moment. Nobody knew when, but it was imminent. And if you were left behind you would suffer through the tribulation and then go into the Lake of Fire forever. There was a lot of urgency around the Rapture, and the youth pastor showed us frightening videos about it. Rapture videos were used to scare kids in Baptist churches long before the Kirk Cameron movies based on the Left Behind book series. Anyone growing up Southern Baptist in the Bible Belt in the late 60s through early 80s probably experienced this, but now that I'm writing it down it seems absolutely crazy.

Apparently the challenge for all Christians (or at least for us Baptists) was getting Jesus in everyone's heart before the Rapture. Really religious people would "surrender" to full time missionary work to be sure people in foreign countries could get Jesus in their hearts too. I really hoped I had Jesus in my heart, but I wasn't ever completely sure about it. Nearly every single week at church our pastor reminded us we needed to be sure about our relationship with Jesus because the Rapture could happen at any second. I sure as hell didn't want to end up in the Lake of Fire for eternity!

The thing is, I had already asked Jesus into my heart sometime before 1976. I walked down the aisle during an altar call and got baptized which was the process for getting Jesus securely in your heart. I had done my part, so why was I re-educated every week on the same process? Almost every week, usually through some subtle shaming sermon, I was reminded I needed a "relationship" with Jesus? How do you have a relationship with someone who is invisible? It seemed very difficult in my analytical mind. I got straight A's in school in math and science, but this Jesus stuff was really hard to figure out, and I spent a lot of time worrying about it.

Most Sundays our pastor would come down from the pulpit and stand at the front of the church after his sermon, and invite people to get Jesus in their hearts. He'd stand there with a grim and somewhat pensive look on his face, sometimes closing his eyes in deep prayer, just waiting and waiting while the organ played verse after verse after verse of Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus or Just As I Am. It was pretty clear nobody was going to lunch until at least one person walked down the aisle to get Jesus in their heart. And it seemed like Pastor Estep had special knowledge someone was holding out.

The longer the altar call went, the more worried I became. I thought it might be ME keeping us from going to lunch! I could never be sure if it was my stomach growling because it was lunch time, or if that was Jesus in my heart. Or, maybe it was Jesus "knocking on the door of my heart" wanting to get in because I'd been fooled by the devil into thinking he was in there when he really wasn't. Maybe my faith was a sham? I had so much anxiety about Jesus not really being in my heart and not having the right "relationship with Jesus" that my parents took me to talk to Pastor Estep at least once that I remember. Everyone was concerned about my soul, including me! It didn't matter if I was one of the most faithful kids in the youth group. It was all about the ephemeral "personal relationship."

If nobody came after a few verses, sometimes Pastor Estep would ask Norman the music director to stop the music. Things were getting very serious on those Sundays. There would be a call for "every head bowed, and every eye closed" so we could all pray again for the person keeping us from going to lunch. Apparently someone was unwilling to walk down the aisle, but if every head was bowed and every eye was closed, maybe they would secretly raise their hand as their first step toward walking down the aisle to get Jesus in their heart. The pastor was allowed to look, but the rest of us were instructed to keep our eyes closed. I confess I peeked! I wanted to know who was keeping us from going to lunch.

This was the normal routine for me pretty much every Sunday from 1976 when we moved to Oklahoma City until 1985 when I graduated from high school and came back to Texas for college. It wasn't uncommon for me to be at church both Sunday morning and evening, so I got double doses of these emotional appeal altar calls. My mom was a church organist and my dad was a deacon, so I was frequently in church on Monday and Wednesday nights too. I easily sat through at least 100 altar calls every year for about a decade. That's roughly 1,000 repeated messages to "invite Jesus into your heart" so I could have a "personal relationship" with him. On top of that, there were summer camps where we got altar calls at least twice a day for a week. They really turned up the guilt and shame meter during Baptist summer camp at Falls Creek Baptist Church Camp in Davis, Oklahoma. I went every year. Religiously.

Missing the Rapture and ending up in the Lake of Fire forever can create anxiety in a kid, so a few times I "rededicated" my life just to be sure. This involved walking down the aisle and confessing you weren't living a godly life and promising to do better. This usually happened after summer camp, because if you "rededicated" at camp you had to do it again in front of the church when you got back. We kept score too. The number of kids who "got Jesus in their heart" at summer camp or "rededicated" was a big deal. Baptists like to keep score. Apparently keeping score in "relationships with Jesus" was how we measured our success as a church. We counted baptisms too. They printed the results in the bulletin they handed out every week so everyone knew latest scores.

This drum beat about a "relationship with Jesus" was thumped into my impressionable, formative mind over and over and over (and over). But these people LOVED ME and cared about my soul, so I just assumed this was for my benefit. I have no doubt Wendell Estep is a godly man, and I'm sure he was just teaching us to the best of his ability according to his best understanding of the Bible, but many years later when I started to study the Bible for myself I was shocked to discover there is almost NOTHING in the Bible to support this emotional appeal to "ask Jesus into your heart." In those days Billy Graham had a huge influence on evangelical pastors, and in retrospect a lot of what I was taught was probably an effort to imitate what they saw in the Billy Graham Crusades.

I've thought about these childhood experiences a lot over the last 20 years in trying to unwind the indoctrination I received during my growing up years between 1976 and 1985. Not all of it was bad, but not all of it was truth based or Biblical either. I hope to unpack a lot of this here in my blog this year, Lord willing and time permitting. I'm looking forward to finally getting free from the shame and guilt driven religion that was poured into me by well meaning people who really did care for me. I've battled depression for the majority of my adult life, and I'm also going to dig into my own psychology and see if these issues are related. I suspect they are.