Messy Faith,  Personal and Spiritual Ramblings,  Redemption Stories

Face to Face: A Messy Tribute to the Place I First Met God

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If you have ever been on my blog before, you probably know that I feel like I have a complicated “faith story.” (If you are new to my blog, you might want to start here.) After walking away from “fundamentalism” in my mid-twenties, I’m now in the process of letting God reconstruct my faith as I move forward in a spirit of grace.

When it comes to healing from a difficult faith experience, recovering from spiritual abuse, or moving forward in faith when you have a complicated relationship with God – progress is not linear. I wish I could fill this series with formulaic posts on the magic steps to recovery. Just do XYZ and everything will be okay.

While I do have some practical advice to offer in posts to come, the process of recovery is a lot more messy than that. As you work through messy faith or the stages of grief, it’s a lot of back and forth. Swinging pendulums. It’s being really angry one day and so full of love toward God the next that you feel your heart will burst. It’s listening to Chris Tomlin in tears for three weeks straight and the next week being hit with it all over again and finding yourself working out to P!nk at the gym.

Then there are times when you realized the healing has been happening, sneaking up on you when you weren’t looking – when you least expect it.

This happened to me today.

Maybe time heals wounds. Maybe being in a loving church or having supportive friends has filled something in my heart. Maybe it’s being in my thirties instead of my twenties and just finally adjusting to adulthood. Maybe it’s the counseling and the therapy sessions during which I’ve sorted through all the pain. Maybe it’s the Zoloft. Who really knows. 

I’ve been really stressed the last few weeks about just a lot of life stuff, and it’s been manifesting itself in teeth grinding and jaw clenching at night and compulsively chewing on my lips and cheeks during the day. It’s something I’ve always done; but lately, it’s been a lot worse. Monday morning, I ran into the gas station on the way to the Y and picked up a few different packs of gum so that I can hopefully gnaw out my stress without engaging in self-injurious behavior. I only mention this because gum is what inspired this completely-unplanned blog post. 

I’ve never been a gum chewer, but as an elementary and middle-school aged kiddo, my mom always bought me gum and candy before sending me off to church camp. I honestly can’t remember if the idea was mine or hers, but I always ended up with Wrigley’s Doublemint and white Tic-Tacs packed along with my clothes, Bible, gel-pens, and disposable camera. It made me feel really cool and independent or something.

So, this morning, as I was chomping out my frustration over this morning’s meltdowns into a piece of Doublemint in-between taking calming breaths and praying my anxiety meds would kick in quickly, I found myself transported back to Ohio in the late 90s as I walked down the path to chapel at summer camp.

Face to Face: A Messy Tribute to the Place I First Met God

(Not me, but totally could be.)

Face to Face: A Messy Tribute to the Place I First Met God

Smells and tastes are funny like that. One minute you’re driving to the Y and the next minute, your brain is hearing the crunch crunch crunch of tennis shoes over the pebble-path that leads to a place that will forever be dear to your heart.

And this was the moment I realized that healing has happened. Because instead of feeling pain, anger, and betrayal – I felt nostalgia. 

Our church camp was known as Camp Peniel, named after the place where Jacob wrestled with God, face to face.

Peniel Bible Camp was founded by a fundamentalist Bible fellowship that has been around since the 60s. My grandparents helped clear the land for the camp. My parents took us to family camp there when I was seven. It might not have been the first time, but it was the first time I remember. When I was finally old enough (the summer after I completed third grade), I was able to go for a week of sleep-away each summer.

I spent the morning pouring over albums on the PBC Facebook page and I was struck with how little has changed. And that’s a good thing. I saw many familiar faces, both from the camp and various churches within the fellowship that my family and extended family attended throughout my childhood and adolescence.

Just like it used to be, it remains a quiet escape from “the world” where families and youths can come and enjoy some “face to face” time with God and other Christians.

“What a joy meeting God face to face, 

Here at Camp Peniel!

With the world far behind, richest blessings we’ll find

As we wait on the Lord a while…”

The church bus would drop us off on the circle, where we would separate – boys down one path, girls down another – to our cabins. The circle was one of my favorite places – complete with a swingset and relics like this leftover-from-the-dark-ages “jungle gym.”

During free time, this was one of my favorite places. I would swing as high as I could and imagine I was flying. I think I felt really close to God in those moments.

Free time meant long lines at the snack shop, where I splurged the spending money my parents gave me on twist ice cream cones, Skittles, grape popsicles, and Pepsi floats.

Then, escaping the commotion of the kids playing Foosball (a game I STILL don’t really get), passing the kids playing tetherball (which is also still there)…

…I’d head up to the pebbled path to the circle with the swings. If there were no open swings, I’d end up on the dock by the big bell.

The dock was important to me because of that time during that first year of family camp when I was seven and fell off the end of the dock into the lake.

The bell was important because it was another landmark that goes down in Camp Peniel history. Every morning it rings loud enough to wake up the entire camp. A few years, the ringing of the bell was followed by the Magificent Seven soundtrack to get the kids roused and ready for cabin lineups, inspections, chapel services, cafeteria meals, devotional times, and games.

The dock was a favorite place for cabins to meet during devotional times. During devotions, we would pull out our Bibles and camp notebooks that had assigned scripture portions to read and questions to answer. When we were finished, we could work on memorizing scripture verses. Every verse memorized meant points for your team.

I’ve written about this before. The mandatory devotions. The scripture memory competitions. How they appealed to my obsessive, competitive nature and spurred me into a religious fervor that often blurred closeness with God with the praises and accolades of man.

As a camper, on top of being taught about God and the Bible, we were taught patriotism, order, and responsibility through more competitions. Clean and organized cabins earned us points. Straight cabin lines before meals meant we got to eat before other cabins did.

It was in this environment that I thrived. These were the happiest days of my summer.

Two years ago, that statement would have filled me with a lot of complicated thoughts and a good dose of nausea. But now, I am at peace with the complicated nature that is fond memories of fundamentalism.

It was friendship. It was fun. It was laughter. It was games. It was being on the winning team. It was feeling whole – loving God and church and nature and it all blending together into something really awesome and beautiful.

Lilies from the lake were a favorite with the girls. 

A few years in a row they had this game for the campers. At mealtimes, there would be something posted in the cafeteria – a chapter and verse, like 3:16 or 14:26, and a word. The camper’s job was to search every book in the Bible containing that reference, until finding a verse that also held that word. Within that verse would be another word that served as a “clue” as to where to find a hidden object on the camp grounds. So, for example, if the reference was 23:5 and “oil,” the camper would quickly thumb through passages until landing on Psalm 23:5. “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” Ah, table…got it. Then as soon as the meal was over, the race was on as interested campers started searching under all of the tables on the premises. Once the “treasure” was found (normally a laminated card or something), we would turn it in to the camp director, receiving an extra portion of points for our team.

It wasn’t as complicated as it sounds. And it was my favorite.

Really though, genius idea on the part of camp staff at making exposure to the Scriptures fun and exciting, don’t you think? 

At this point, I’m really rambling. I think the point I’m trying to get across is all of the good (and blessed) memories I have of this place.

Fishing with my dad on a rare trip to the second lake. That one time we were fishing and I caught a bluegill. Paddle boats and canoes. Archery practice. Swinging on the porch swings of Ashbrook hall. Bible quiz competitions. Skits. Facing the formidible rope bridge and praying I didn’t fall. Swimming in the lake… (okay, ew, but at the time…) 

But those are just memories…fleeting vision surrounding the bigger stories. The three stories I must tell.

The first one, I’ve told before. Two years ago, I wrote these words:

I was only seven, after all.

I looked into the campfire at family camp and I was consumed with fear. In the dark room, the fire was ominous. Evil almost. I had been taught about hell and the terror of not wanting to end up in such a place led me to grab my mommy’s hand. Together we sat on a torn yellow leather couch and she shared with me the truths I already knew. About God, Jesus, the Cross, and how I didn’t have to go to hell, if only I believed.

I don’t remember the words that she said or the words that I prayed. I just remember returning to the group of campers and timidly telling them of my decision to follow Christ.

From that day on I was, if only a little, slightly less afraid of hell. At least, as long as I didn’t think about it too much.

I truly believe that that was the moment of my justification.

But I grieve that moment. Not because of what happened, but because of why it happened.

I wish that fear hadn’t been the thing that pushed me into the arms of God.

Today, though, as I looked at pictures of that very fireplace that – ultimately – led me away from hell-fire and into the arms of God, I didn’t feel grief as strongly as I felt gratefulness.

My second story is that of the chapel service where I “dedicated my life to God.”

I honestly can’t recall what year of camp it was, who the speaker was, or what the message was about. What I do remember is how my feet sounded on the pebbled floor of the chapel. You couldn’t leave your seat and walk down the aisle without people hearing every footstep – making reception to a formal invitation that much more daunting.

I don’t remember if I walked alone or if others walked with me. I don’t remember if a counselor prayed with me. But I remember telling God that I wanted to serve him with my life.

Growing up a fundamentalist, I thought that would mean that I would grow up to marry a pastor’s wife or a missionary’s wife.

Instead, I sit on my couch in my pajamas, writing on my blog about messy faith, motherhood, and special needs parenting to an audience of around 15,000 people all over the world.

While sharing Scripture memes on Facebook and passing out tracts in a third-world-country are totally NOT the same thing, this is my ministry and my calling and I’m doing what I can with the cards I’ve been dealt.

I may not be asking lost people, “Can I tell you about my Jesus?” – but I can share with both Christians and non-Christians that it’s okay to struggle with faith, mental illness, and discouragement. That sometimes church hurts, but God still loves usThat there is always hope and Jesus is always worth it

But the final story is one that I feel ties it all together.

One evening, after all of the campers had climbed into their sleeping bags for lights out, our counselors jumped out of bed, turned on all the lights, and told us to get dressed. It felt like we had been asleep for an hour, but it had probably only been ten minutes. Our counselors, armed with bright flashlights, led us on a late-night hike around the back trails of the camp.

Finally, we stopped in a field, where we laid down and looked up at the stars. With no city lights around, the sight was literally breathtaking. We shared stories about God and faith and sang our favorite songs. The only song I remember singing was Trust His Word by Ron Hamilton. (You can listen to it here.)

The memory is so vivid. The stars. The song. The reality of God’s presence feeling so big and tangible. Over the last fifteen years, in those few moments where I have wondered if maybe the atheists are right and God doesn’t exist, God takes me back to this moment, looking up at the stars, and whispers, “Trust my word.”

Jesus made each star in heaven; He created earth and sea;
He’s the keeper of all knowledge, What is past and what will be.
Yet He offers His great wisdom, so you will not lose your way.
Like a lamp it glows; every step it shows.
You can know His will each day.

He is not a distant stranger, He can be your closest friend.
And He’ll always listen closely when you share your heart with Him.
Jesus walks the path beside you; He has been there all along.
And He’ll guide your feet when your step is weak,
And your strength is almost gone.

Trust His Word
Trust His Word
All God’s promises are true
Trust His Word
When your pathway disappears
When your joy gives way to tears
When you’re plagued with doubts and fears
Trust His Word

While browsing through Camp Peniel’s Facebook photos this morning, my breath caught in my throat when I saw these photos:

I can personally vouch for the fact that these photos are 100% legit. The view really is that stunning.

When camp was over, we piled our bags and suitcases on the circle where the bus would come and pick us up. We would return to our homes exhausted and stinky.

When I left fundamentalism, I also took baggage with me. I’ve had to sort through the dirty laundry – decide what to keep and what to throw out. Decide what’s good – but maybe needs a good dose of washing with oxyclean. Decide what burdens in the way of “standards” and “convictions” need to be set down in order to live free in grace.

It’s been a process.

The time I spent at Peniel was simple and easy. I was living in a black-and-white world where I was happy and everything made sense.

But, like Jacob, when I have met God face-to-face, I’ve had to wrestle with Him. Lord knows I’m a fighter. I’ve come away in pain, bruised, limping, and even broken.

I’ve had to tell God, “I love you, but I need some space.” 

I’ve had to be angry, hurt, and confused.

But now, this is my song:

I used to wish that I could rewrite history
I used to dream that each mistake could be erased
Then I could just pretend
I never knew me back then

I used to pray that You would take this shame away
Hide all the evidence of who I’ve been
But it’s the memory of
The place You brought me from
That keeps me on my knees

And even though I’m free

Heal the wound but leave the scar
A reminder of how merciful You are
I am broken, torn apart
Take the pieces of this heart
And heal the wound but leave the scar

I have not lived a life that boasts of anything
I don’t take pride in what I bring
But I’ll build an altar with
The rubble that You’ve found me in
And every stone will sing
Of what You can redeem

Don’t let me forget
Everything You’ve done for me
Don’t let me forget
The beauty in the suffering

Heal the wound but leave the scar
A reminder of how merciful You are
I am broken, torn apart
Take the pieces of this heart
And heal the wound but leave the scar

How do you leave legalistic fundamentalism and move forward in grace? I wish I could tell you how. But I can’t. I can only share my story. 

But here’s what I can tell you:

It gets better.

It gets easier.

You begin to heal.

You become less angry.

You start to reframe things in a healthy way that can see both the blessings and the problems. 

Eventually, you can look back and see that it wasn’t all bad. 

There’s beauty in the suffering.

I hope that when you get to that place, you too can build an altar from the rubble. 

Find this on Etsy

All photos from Peniel Bible Camp public Facebook Page. 

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  • Holly M

    Hi Aprille! I just had to say that I’ve been reading through your blog for the past few days and am completely surprised by the number of things we have in common. I grew up in central OH. My dad helped to lay the tile in the kitchen at Camp Peniel when I was just a girl. I think I have an old photo of us paddle-boating on the lake there…. I never attended as a camper because the church we went to when I was in jr high/high school went to a different, small IFB camp, but I definitely could relate to the feelings of this post. My husband and I are Ambassador grads. We actually just moved from NC (where we’ve lived since graduation 10 years ago) to Minnesota and are in the process of finding our first church out of that college bubble + the IFB churches we grew up in. It’s been a long, interesting journey for us. But I appreciate all that you’ve written, because it helps to know someone else understands this journey! Keep it up!

    • Aprille

      Ooh this is exciting! Especially because Peniel and Ambassador are kinda different worlds, so to find someone else with both in their background is kind of like finding a unicorn! Wow! When were you at Ambassador and what was your maiden name?

      • Holly

        I know, right? It’s kind of crazy 😀 I was at ABC from 2006-2009. My husband graduated in 2010 and was on staff until 2014 as the web/IT guy. My maiden name was Skinner, and married name is Minion (my husband’s brother married John Godfrey’s younger sister if that helps make a connection) 😀

        • Aprille

          I totally recognize your maiden name although I have no idea where or why. We probably have a lot of mutual Facebook friends or something! We just missed each other. My one and only semester was fall 2005.

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