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Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture. Except this Wednesday.
This week, Connor Joel Park is the Holy Relics Guest Writer.
Atop the small hill shaded over by the great oaks of the southern ridge lies a patch of bare earth. Season after season, this rough circle of clay and ash endures, ringed by rough-hewn logs worn smooth from years as makeshift seats. On a late May morning, camp staffers in matching T-shirts climb the hill with weed whackers and clear out the underbrush, creating new order with each unruly plant beaten back. No more shall weeds and crabgrass grow, nor thorns infest the ground. They come in sneaker-shod feet to make that summer’s fire circle a little Eden free of poison oak.
Led on in the hope of a new transformation, little tribes trudge up the hill each summer. Each circle is knit by that Protestant priesthood of counselors and parent-sponsors, carrying with them little tabernacles, variations on a common theme. Whether they bring acoustic guitars capo’d up to accompany children’s high singing or portable PAs for spoken word poetry or lively playlists for spirited dancing, there is always a fire at the center, burning bright. Whether the prayers offered are given in the tongues of men or of angels, each group has one purpose in common: to sit around a stack of kindling and wood and commune with the pillar of flame by night. Why go out into the wilderness if not to meet God-The-Consuming-Fire, hands outstretched to toast marshmallows over His light and warmth?
Is it the fire’s light and warmth that make those starry evenings so different from gatherings at home in pews or mouldering youth center couches? Is the camp’s un-air conditioned central chapel across from the dining hall not pilgrimage enough? Perhaps what hallows the campfire over and beyond these other places is its smoke, rising to the sky with the aroma of another, older world. In the fluorescent light of September classrooms, youth pastors and small group leaders will recapitulate this summer as a mountaintop experience, as a transfiguration. Tonight, pungent woodsmoke stings campers’ eyes. On closing campfires of a Thursday or a Friday night, tears flow out commingled with testimonies of glorious things, new affirmations, freshly-acknowledged wrestlings, renewed confessions. Whenever by chance one of these little ones catches the scent of that summer incense, memory returns to the circle on the hill, and to truth. There are few “smells-and-bells” in the common worship of those who make their way to camp, but where there is smoke, there is fire from the heavens.
There is a tried-and-true summer song that often wafts out over the grounds on campfire night. Its potency may be in its simplicity, its single chorus, verses long scattered to the wind like flakes of loose ash. “Lord, prepare me, to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true. With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.” It is a song given new life in the weeklong retreats that mark one high point of the year, one time when youth groups go out from home to light a new fire for the Lord in young hearts. In this ritual of wood and flame and open air and end-of-the-week confessions, one feels a warmth, present and active. When you have no chapel walls, you are yourself the sanctuary, you are yourself the hilltop altar.
Each summer, they come seeking the renewal of whatever covenant there is, following in the footsteps of Father Abraham and his innumerable sons. Up the hill by the southern ridge, and down it again when the work is done. Here is the wood, the knife, the promised lamb, but where is the fire? Fetched down the hill in live coals still gleaming in young remembering eyes, in the smell of smoke unwashed from this summer’s camp T-shirt, in heat radiating from hearts strangely warmed by the baptism of a dry wood burned down to ash. The pillar of fire goes out among them, into the valley of the ordinary world and the ground they walk on is holy.
Connor Joel Park lives, works, and writes in northern Indiana. He bakes pies and edits sentences everywhere between Chicago and Boston where there is a place to lay his head.
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