When I was in elementary school, I went to a Christian summer camp. One evening during the all-camp gathering, they asked us to bow our heads and close our eyes while our counselors stood around the perimeter of the room. “Keep your eyes closed! No peeking,” the speaker said.
She started to talk about what it meant to have a relationship with Christ. I had decided to follow Jesus a long time ago, so I already knew this. “Please keep your eyes closed,” was said again. “If anyone wants to know more about having a relationship with Christ, get up and go stand by your counselor.”
Curiosity overwhelmed me. Who had come to a Christian camp without being a Christian? My eyes squeezed shut, I listened intently as there were scuffles around the room. None near me; sounded like all the campers from my cabin were staying seated. My head firmly down, I opened one eye and peered at the carpet, checking my peripheral vision for movement I might be able to identify. Nothing. But I could see the girl across from me, head up and looking around, with her hands over her mouth in astonishment. Clearly she doesn’t follow directions, I thought.
As those campers and counselors headed for the doors, the speaker spoke again. “Now, if there is anyone here interested in baptism, go stand by your counselor.”
My eyes popped open and I launched from my seat – not because I was particularly interested in baptism, but because I hoped to catch a glimpse of those still exiting the room. I strained my neck, looking at the backs of the heads that were still departing, trying to see if I could identify anyone. I could not; they were all unknown to me.
Though my inquisitive nosiness had been foiled, I figured I may as well learn some more about baptism now that I had joined the crowd gathering at the fringes of the room. As we walked out, I spoke to one of the other girls from my cabin. “I was baptized as a baby. I don’t know if that counts,” I said. She said it was the same for her as several dozen of us settled in around a fire pit.
I don’t remember the specifics of what the counselors said that night. I know they said that baptism is an outward, public demonstration of our decision to follow Christ, to be obedient to God to matter what, and to live a life fully-committed to God.
I also remember the gravity with which they spoke about baptism. The seriousness, the solemnity, the significance. As though baptism was the very biggest decision you’d ever make in your whole life. And the more they spoke, the more I felt like a weight was pressing on my shoulders.
Adult-me believes that baptism is a great thing. But what child-me heard that night was that being baptized was the same thing as committing to becoming a nun or a full-time missionary or some other vocational decision to follow Christ. I don’t begrudge them; I think they were ultimately encouraging us to not take the decision lightly. But honestly, as a child, it was frightening to hear.
And I started to panic.
I had already decided to follow Christ. I understood my need for a savior and the concept of substitutionary atonement – at least as much as a child-mind could. And I believed in being obedient to God. Sure, sometimes it was hard – like when I had to do what my parents said even though I didn’t want to – but I figured that was balanced out by the easier things – making sure I didn’t murder someone (I figured I had that one in the bag).
But next to that campfire, I thought more deeply about what it meant to be obedient and committed to God. It was one thing to do my best to keep a list of rules from the Bible, but what if I felt that God was specifically calling ME to do something? What if it was something really hard and really scary?
And what was the hardest and scariest possible thing that I could imagine God calling me to do as I sat at that fire pit?
Be a missionary in Africa.
Going to a place I didn’t know, far away from people I knew, in a culture I didn’t know, eating food I wasn’t familiar with, surrounded by languages I didn’t speak, living in what I pictured as hot and dirty conditions with lions, trying to tell people about a God I still didn’t completely understand.
Seriously, how is that not scary for a kid to think about?
All throughout my childhood, when I heard people talk about following God or being obedient to him, I always thoughts, “Okay, I can do that – as long as it doesn’t mean I have to go to Africa.” Going to Africa as a missionary was the most terrifying prospect I could picture might be required if you were a Christian.
I left that fire pit wide-eyed and spoke to the girl I had walked down with from my cabin. “Um, I hope that my baptism as a baby counted. Because I don’t want to do that.” She nodded, just as wide-eyed.
Years later when the opportunity presented itself, I did get baptized. And they did not immediately hand me a scary plane ticket to Africa when I climbed out of the pool. But if they had, I would have been okay with it.
Somewhere along the line my heart and my mind changed. I realized that there are plenty of challenges we have to face in life – regardless of whether or not one is in Africa. And that following God will not always be easy, but that he loves us and will always be with us – whether in Africa or Colorado. And that as long as God was with me, everything would be okay. It would be better than okay; it would be an adventure.
Only sixty-nine days now until I go to Africa…
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Postscript: My dad e-mailed me a link to this hilarious song that I had completely forgotten about, Please Don’t Send Me To Africa!