Blue Lake Methodist Camp is a beautiful place. The compound sits nestled in the wilderness, surrounded by longleafs, live oaks, and still water.
I am here tonight to deliver a speech to a room of elderly Methodist ministers and their wives. I have to remind myself to behave, and not tell stories about my Methodist friends. Which is hard for me to do.
It will take all I have not to tell the story of my friend J.L., whose mother woke him up one morning before church shouting, “Get dressed for church, J.L.! You’re gonna be late!”
“I’m not going!” he shouted.
“Why not?” she said.
“Two reasons, Mama. One, because I don’t like anyone in that roomful of obnoxious jerks. And two, because they sure as shoeshine don’t like me.”
His mother replied, “Well, I’ll give you two reasons why you ARE going, J.L. One, you’re forty-seven years old. And two, you’re the pastor.”
Blue Lake’s main building is a plain-looking structure, built in the early ‘50’s. The cinder block walls, the fluorescent lights, the linoleum floors, it reminds you of every municipal building you ever saw.
The beauty of this place lies beneath the surface.
I walk the hallway of dorm rooms. Many doors are slung open. Inside each room are three single beds, side by side. Lord, at the memories.
I have done my share of camping here. Sometimes in dorms, sometimes in cabins. I was not raised Methodist, but sometimes we Baptists used these facilities.
Once, I shared a dorm with Billy Sheldon and his grandfather who was a Primitive Baptist minister. The old man snored so loud that we placed bits of toilet paper into our ears.
This did nothing to dull the sound. So the next night, Billy and I tried wet cotton balls instead. It still didn’t work.
We were about to give up hope, but Billy had an idea. That night, Billy took a stale biscuit from the cafeteria, squeezed it very tightly, and shoved it into his grandfather’s open mouth.
The next morning, we were in deep trouble. We were disciplined of course. Billy and I were sentenced to do dishes in the cafeteria after breakfast. Billy washed, I dried.
There was the time I visited Blue Lake on a young adults father-son retreat, even though I had no father. It was a Methodist weekend, my friend’s father brought me along as a guest.
We had a famous time, swimming, fishing, playing baseball games, campfire singing. And I couldn’t believe there were kind people out there who took time to be so nice to fatherless kids.
We who grow up without fathers tend to be skeptical about this world. It’s takes a lot of campfire singing, baseball playing, and fishing to undo this.
He was a good man. After he died, I told that story at his funeral.
Later in my life, I came here as a 19-year-old. I was working part-time at a Baptist church. We were visiting for the elderly men’s retreat.
The music minister and I loaded an archaic amplifier into a church van and my accordion. For three days, the preacher delivered sermons after every meal. He would holler until the squiggly vein in his forehead popped out.
Then, for an invitational, the music minister would sing “Just as I Am” while I accompanied him on accordion.
The accordion. You read that right. This is why I have lifelong self-confidence issues.
During that same trip, I shared a dorm room with a young man who I will call Chip.
Chip was older than me, a brand new father, and a newlywed. One night, he admitted to me that he had a bad drinking problem.
I’ll never forget how helpless I felt when that man broke down, bawling into his bedsheets.
“What do I do?” he pleaded with me. “I’m ruining my own life, man. Help me.”
Help him? I was young. I was stupid. My voice had hardly dropped yet. “You’re asking the wrong guy,” I said.
So I left the room and searched for reinforcements. It was a few hours past midnight.
The first person I found was an elderly minister, seated in the mess hall, doing a crossword puzzle. He wasn’t part of our group. I don’t know why he was there.
I introduced him to my friend. My friend told the man about his problem. The old man brewed coffee. The three of us sat around a table, talking. I kept expecting the old man to sermonize, but he didn’t. He told jokes and funny stories.
My friend started laughing in spite of his tears. The old man had one story after another and he lightened the mood with humorous tales of hunting, fishing, and growing up.
After a few hours, the old man placed a hand on Chip’s shoulder and said, “You’re gonna be just fine, son. You hear me?” Then he gave Chip his number.
Incidentally, I saw Chip a few months ago. He’s been sober for almost twenty years. I told him I was going to Blue Lake to deliver a speech. Chip smiled, but didn’t say a word. And he didn’t have to. I knew what he was thinking. In fact, I was thinking the same thing.
Blue Lake is a beautiful place.