THE FATHER’S LOVE by Lori Oliver

Growing up in a Christian home looked different for me than most. My parents believed in God, believed in Jesus, and were confident of their salvation, but the meaning behind “being a Christian” did not impact their day-to-day life. They grew up fast, having three children to raise by their early twenties. My parents’ primary focus was to keep three little girls alive. Church attendance and Christian fellowship was the last thing on their minds.

When I think back to the memories of my childhood, and the effects of growing up in what my young-self perceived as stagnant Christianity, my emotions contradict.

In a desire to be hopeful and refrain from losing my innocence, I tend to cling to the joyous moments. A rush of happy, delightful memories fills my mind. I remember the chill of the December wind blowing against the old deer blind. The windows shuddered, and the door shook. My mom turned the space heater up a notch. Within five minutes, you could smell the definition of “delicious” filter through the air; breakfast burritos were my grandpa’s specialty during deer season. Just wrap them in foil and place them on the space heater. Within the first five minutes of your hunt, your nerves would be calmed by perfectly cooked eggs, gooey cheese, and savory bacon, all wrapped up into a little burrito of heaven. Even if your hunt was not successful, the day was not wasted because your stomach was full of grandpa’s burritos. And in most of the cases, my mom’s and my hunt proved not to be successful. She assured me that it was not anything that I did that made the deer not come. However, that deer blind being the place where I learned “Pattycake,” “Here Is the Church,” “I Went to a Chinese Restaurant,” and many more hand-clapping games, I think I had something to do with it.

Despite the fullness of these wonderful childhood memories that reflect goodness and wholeness, I cannot help but recall the memories that reflect the worldly desires of my parents caused by my perception of their stagnant Christianity.

The night after the deer hunt was frequently followed by alcohol and loud music. Old tunes of Ronnie Milsap, Don Williams, and Conway Twitty bounced off the tin walls of the cabin. The room filled with the smell of grease, Marlboro Lights Shorts, and Miller Lite. My sisters know how the night ends, so they’d choose to go to bed early and escape the chaos. The stubbornness that runs through me, probably caused by being the youngest child, persuaded me to stay. I knew that was not a scene for an eight-year-old, but I was strong. My skin was tough. I convinced myself that the memories of these long nights would fade. Yet, ten years later, the memories stream in my mind as if I were watching the latest motion picture. At the moment, I feared that something bad would happen if I was not present. This resulted in a very sleepy eight-year-old, as well as my outlook on Christianity being messy.

This sort of faith was passed on to me and my two older sisters. It was a faith that was unfulfilling. However, I would not change a thing. I am very thankful that I grew up with a faith like this! Why? Because I was able to make my faith my own. I was never forced to be a Christian, and it wasn’t something I claimed I was just because of my parents. Being a Christian, believing in Jesus, and following Christ was something I chose.

I took my faith into my own hands. I discovered what it meant to be a faithful Christian, not a stagnant Christian. I learned from my parents’ mistakes. I saw where they felt empty, and I searched where I could be made whole. I searched and found the answer that I was looking for; a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ fulfilled me in ways unimaginable. The Lord restored my view of Christianity and reconciled me to Himself. He pulled me into His love and gave me a decision to make; follow the path of my parents, or step into the unknown and follow Him. I chose life in the Lord, and it was the best and most important decision of my life.

I became a Christian when I was fourteen. I had been going to a Christian youth summer camp, Camp Peniel, for the past two years, and this was my last year as a camper. I went into the week with zero expectations, and I left that week having a small, and very delicate, relationship with the Lord. Through my cabin of ten girls, I felt the true love of Christ for the first time. I saw Christ’s love, servitude, humility, and joy through my newfound friends. It was so beautiful, and so filling!

Leaving that week, I knew I needed Christ in my life. He was not just a person who, if I believed in him, I would then have eternal life. He was so much more. He was my Savior, who loved me dearly and deeply, and through that love, gave up his life for me, for my sins. And it did not end there! He wanted a relationship with me. One full of growth and goodness and genuineness.

There at camp, I met a God who loved me. I knew I could not abandon that love. It was something I had to explore. Ever since then, my relationship with the Lord has grown in more ways than I can comprehend. He has cultivated the soil in my heart, pruned away the withered branches, and He has established new life.

Camp Peniel’s impact on my faith and God’s handiwork through camp did not stop there. Camp has been such a sweet gift from the Lord, and it is a gift that keeps on giving. It is a gift that has not only touched my life, but has influenced my older sister’s faith and impacted my parents’ faith as well. The Lord continues to lead me to Camp Peniel each summer. And each summer, I leave being more rooted in my relationship with the Lord.

I spent four summers volunteering at camp as a “Workcrew” member. I did the dirty work at camp; countless hours washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms, clearing brush, and many more gritty jobs. Here I learned how to humbly serve Christ through serving others. I learned how to joyfully clean a toilet because I knew it went towards something greater than myself. I learned how to develop community with fellow believers, and what that looked like in and outside of the camp setting. Workcrew planted seeds of truth and structure in my faith. I was able to learn and grow.

This past summer, I worked full-time as a camp counselor. It was such a humbling and beautiful experience. Instead of being the camper that was being poured into by my counselor, I was the counselor pouring into my campers. It was a complete one-eighty from only five years ago!

In three months, I grew more confident in the Lord’s goodness. His strength was evident, and His kindness was overflowing. My knowledge about my faith grew as well. I became more confident in my beliefs and why I believe what I believe. Camp gave me resources (books, scripture, people) that I could go to for answers and explanations. My spiritual foundation was made stronger.

Three weeks into this past summer at Camp Peniel, I was assigned my first “tribe:” Eden—the “babies” of camp. I had five six-year-old little girls: Luna, Susan, Viviane, Emma, and Peyton. When I got my assignment on Saturday, I could not help but grin from ear to ear. I had been hoping to be assigned a tribe since the beginning of summer. I heard all about the joys and adventures that Day Camp brought, and now I would get to experience that firsthand! Though the excitement was overflowing, Day Camp was a whole new territory, something I had never experienced before. I was used to the structure of residents’ camp. I knew the schedule like the back of my hand. It all made sense to me. But Day Camp! Who knew what I was getting myself into?

On top of the unfamiliar, I had the babies. And with that would bring many challenges in itself. My patience would undoubtedly be tested by the endless questions six-year-olds bring. I could already feel sticky hands wrapping around my legs and arms, like octopus tentacles gripping at their prey. My hands sweated just thinking about how chaotic pool time will be. Little children running around the poolside with constant whistles and yells of “no running!”

Despite all the bumps that lay before me in the upcoming week, I was at peace. So many opportunities laid before me: the laughs I would get to share with my campers, the memories, the millions of chances to pour light and truth into this new generation. I had no reason for sweaty palms and a racing heart. Everything was going to be okay.

After the assignment meeting, I went to my usual spot. There was a nice breeze, which helped combat the one-hundred-degree temperatures. The view was splendid, as always. The mountains stood tall in the distance, the trees swayed with joy against the summer’s breeze, and the birds fluttered through the air gracefully. I sat at the wooden, and slightly sticky, lodge tables on the front porch. This was my place of solitude. The place I would seek stillness when the hustle of camp life was catching up with me.

I flipped through the pages of my prayer journal. I remember when the pages were once crisp and white. Now as I went to find the next new page, my hands flipped through a journal stained tan. Dirt, coffee, and tears covered the pages. It was a joy to see.

I found a blank page and began to write. I prayed for each of my girls. I prayed for open hearts, receptive to the gospel. I prayed that the Lord would give them the courage to step out of their comfort zones. I prayed for joy and an abundance of laughter. My hand and pen glided together, almost seamlessly, over the page. The excitement began to stir as I closed my prayer. I was ready for the adventure ahead. No amount of unknown could take away my joy for these girls. I hadn’t even met them yet, but I had confidence in the goodness of the Lord, and confidence in how He would provide this week.

Monday morning rolled around. I woke up to an all-too-familiar sound of sporadic beeping. My first reaction to waking up at five a.m. on a Monday is to hit snooze and sink back down into my warm covers. Especially when I went to sleep at midnight the night before. But I remembered the delights that were ahead of me—five little delights, to be exact! Coffee in my right hand, and clipboard in the other, I was ready for my tribe.

I loaded into the camp bus with four other counselors. I wasn’t the only one feeling the Monday morning five a.m. wake-up call. A coffee mug found its place in each of my fellow counselors’ hands. The caffeine quickly did its job, and we were all ready for the adventure ahead. The drive was short, only about five minutes or so. But it felt as if it were hours. The joy of meeting my kiddos was stirring! With every bump from the uneven dirt road, every twist and turn as we drove further away from main camp towards Day Camp, the anticipation built and built. I looked over the schedule, making sure I had the gist of it memorized. I kept forgetting what came after lunch and before pool time. I checked over it again, just to make sure I was fully prepared.

The bus reached the pavilion. It was go time! I set up my tribe’s blanket, arranged the girls’ name tags alphabetically, labeled their cubbies, and double-checked what came after lunch on the schedule. I sighed with relief and excitement as I sat crisscross awaiting my tribe’s arrival. Do I stand? That is more professional. Or should I remain sitting? That seems more inviting and less intimidating. Thoughts of this sort raced through my mind. In the distance, I saw a mom and her daughter approaching the pavilion. The daughter was small in stature, had pigtails and a bright pink, sparkly lunchbox, and had a preference to skip over to the pavilion rather than walk. Connecting all the dots, I assumed she was in my tribe.

I felt the butterflies shifting around. The anticipation, the joy! All of it came so fast! The mother and daughter pair were coming closer with every step. I said a quick, simple prayer under my breath, stood up, and then greeted them with a smile. My hands were shaky, maybe from excitement, maybe from nerves, or from both. If it was nerves, they quickly faded. The little girl had such a pleasant smile and delight to her. Something about her pink, sparkly lunch box gave me a sense of my own childhood, and the recall of my younger years as a camper made any timidness fade away. My confidence was restored. I was ready to face the week! The mother said her goodbyes and snuck away before her daughter could realize her absence. I was with Susan (the little girl), left to talk about the fun things in life: unicorns, popsicles, and the famous question, “What time is lunch?”

I blinked my eyes for just a second, and when I opened them, it was Friday. The Lord blessed me with such a wonderful week. Just when I thought my heart could not get any fuller, the sweetest gift was given to me. A gift that I will cherish forever. One that brings in all those warm, fuzzy feelings they only talk about in movies. A gift that makes you want to jump with glee and smile until your cheeks ache. Yet, I didn’t jump, and my cheeks did not ache. Instead, my heart was full. Filled with the tenderness of childlike faith.

It was the final tribe time of the week. I sat with my girls in a circle, on our blanket under the pavilion. Here I sat with them, all week, telling them Bible stories, memorizing scripture together, and, of course, eating popsicles. I sat with five little innocent eyes gleaming up at me. Eyes that had sparks of curiosity, eyes that wanted to know more of who this Jesus fellow was. It was such a pure and innocent desire that shone through them. It was absolutely beautiful. And during our final tribe time, I looked into their delicate gazes one final time, and I knew that I had to get a point across. A point that many individuals seem to quickly lose sight of as soon as they step foot into this world. A point that the enemy steals from our hearts, and destroys and ruins for so many. A point that, if told to my parents sooner, could have changed the trajectory of my childhood. I knew I would have done them an injustice if they left camp and did not understand this simple point, this simple point that changed my life:

“Show me with your hands how much God loves you.”

As soon as these words left my mouth, I saw ten little arms and ten tiny hands stretch out as far out as they could reach. There was a strain in each little fingertip, from hopes of magically growing an inch or two more, to allow for a larger wingspan. Sounds of whimsical giggles filled the air.

“Guess what? God loves you more than that!”

I then instructed us to stand up in a circle and hold hands.

“Now while holding hands, stretch out big and wide. As big as you can.”

All six of us were laughing and smiling, reaching with everything in us, barely grasping each other’s hands. They all looked at me with anticipation and joy.

“God loves you even more than this!” I said to them.

I didn’t need a response from them to know that they understood what I was saying. Their smiles said it all. The innocent sparkle in their eyes spoke for them. They beamed with the fullness of the Lord’s love.

The gift I earned wasn’t anything I could hold in my hands. It wasn’t something one could buy from the store and wrap with a big, pink bow. The gift I was given was the opportunity to witness the beauty of childlike faith. It was to be a part of something greater than myself, something beyond myself. It is a gift that I will cherish forever. A gift that has changed how I live out my faith. I learned from the deep curiosity these girls had, and it is a deep curiosity and yearning for more that I wish to reflect. Every one of my Day Campers was an answered prayer. They brought challenges, joy, and a new perspective. I was able to peek inside the mind of my counselor during my last year as a camper and see what she saw in me as a new Believer.

I am often reminded of my stagnant Christian upbringing, the journey I have made from that point, and the journey that I am still on. My heart could burst from the amount of gratitude it holds. I am beyond thankful to know of the never-ending love of the Lord. Through His love, He has redeemed me, restored me, and made me whole.

Lori Oliver is 19 years old from a small town west of Austin, called Burnet, Texas. Currently, she is a Junior General Studies major with concentrations in Christian Studies and Humanities. Lori is pursuing her studies at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.

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