“Pastor, the toilets won’t flush.”
Youth camp brings mountaintop spiritual experiences to thousands of young lives every year. Eager hearts explore paths of religious quest to find profound insights. Fervent tears, joyous fellowship, and even transformation can occur when an adolescent soul spends a few days in godly company.
“None of them?”
“Even the kitchen sinks are stopped up.”
Ministers and dedicated sponsors chaperone these sacred pilgrimages. With months of planning behind them, these mature and seasoned leaders stand ready for any emergency that threatens to stymie the movement of God.
But occasionally movements of other sorts can present a problem.
A young, enthusiastic minister, I had donned the mantle of leadership for an intrepid band of campers. We left the arid panhandle of Oklahoma in our rattle-trap church bus early Monday morning. By three o’clock, we were winding our way around the hilly, high road toward the camp. The vistas of central Oklahoma’s tree-covered Arbuckle Mountains captured our attention, shimmering in a warm, humid breeze that whirled through the open windows. We swept down the hill and through the camp gate, 40 souls ready for a great spiritual adventure.
Falls Creek felt as hot as hades when we rolled through the gate.
That summer had burned across central Oklahoma like a blazing range fire. Heat from the record-setting July days baked Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center like an overdone pizza at an overnight youth party.
“I hope the air-conditioner is working good, preacher,” Randy shouted over the groan of the engine. The perennial red face of the stocky youth minister burned bright with sweat as he maneuvered the bus through the crowded streets of the sprawling conference center. “It’s really gonna be hot this week.”
“It’s a new cabin. Surely, they put big cooling units in for days like this.” My fingers were crossed.
Falls Creek has a long, illustrious history for Oklahoma Baptists. Young campers have frequented the site since 1917. Permanent buildings began replacing the tents in the 1920’s. By our visit, wealthy churches had built huge lodges, sleeping more than 100 campers in style, with gleaming kitchens, great rooms with fireplaces, and air conditioning units so good the kids even needed blankets at night. My country-bred campers stared with amazement at the towering brick-and-stone mansions as we drove along the main road.
“Here we are!” I shouted when we stopped at our cabin.
“THIS is it?” The skeptical query came from Jeff, a skinny, bespeckled kid who always asked too many questions. The rest of the riders sat silent.
“Randy and I came down here a few weeks ago and looked around. It’s a good cabin.”
Honestly, I had anticipated a bit of disappointment. Our church budget was stretched to the limit. Rent was high, as camp attendance surged and drove up prices every year. My publicity that hyped attendance didn’t show any pictures of our chosen site. Now, the skimpy nature of the accommodations was plain for all to see.
The screened porch of the blue-green, one-story metal building filled the front portion of the cabin, beckoning us to come inside. The remainder was divided into three sections, with the kitchen in the middle, boys dorm on the left and girls dorm on the right. Grey concrete floors and white sheetrock walls projected a simple, unpretentious image, no doubt to help us turn our attention from the charms of the materialistic world to the higher ground of spiritual values.
My ears caught the sound of the air conditioner compressors running full blast, leading me to call enthusiastically, “It’s cool inside! Let’s get unloaded. The evening service is at 7:00. I know we all need to freshen up after the long trip.”
The first three days passed quickly in spite of the blistering heat. Each day began with morning chapel in the Tabernacle, a cavernous, open-sided building seating 5000 on rustic wood benches. This was followed by group studies in age-graded parks scattered around the camp. The conclusion to the morning featured another plenary session. After lunch, the afternoon schedule was free for making new friends, sleeping, organized sports, or hiking. Many explored the trails to favorite destinations, like the Bubblegum Tree, a massive oak adorned with countless blobs of weathered gum that covered the bark like a chewed-up rainbow. Everyone attended the two-hour evening service, with choirs and the most notable preachers in the state. These great orators brought passionate messages to win the straying hearts of Oklahoma’s future leaders to faith. The campers were required to wear nice clothes to this service with dresses mandatory for the young women and slacks for the men.
Thursday afternoon we had promised a special treat for everyone—a trip to Turner Falls. Located just a few miles away, this natural water park featured acres of rock-lined pools with slides, waterfalls and cool spring water. It seemed a refreshing oasis from the crackling heat of the camp. What’s more, no restrictions against “mixed bathing” kept the sexes separate, like they did at the camp pool, where boys and girls could not swim together, or even be in sight of the pool at the same time! Turner Falls was wide open to ogling, flirting and blowing off adolescent energy.
When I stepped into the cabin for Thursday’s lunch, Pat, the head cook, gave the bad news, as ominous as a thunderclap from an Oklahoma stormcloud.
“Every toilet in this place is stopped up.”
A plumbing catastrophe had engulfed the facility. I hurried to inspect the bathroom. Dark, brown water rippled just under the top lip of all 8 toilets, threatening a liquid apocalypse of biblical proportions.
“Do we have a plunger?”
Randy had already searched the closets. “No. It probably wouldn’t help. The main line must be backed up. We’ll need a plumber.”
“Getting someone up here from Davis could take 2 days!”
We grimaced at the prospect of marching students to neighboring cabins for bathroom breaks and cold showers.
“Going to Turner Falls this afternoon is perfect. That will get the kids away for a few hours.”
“Right. I’ll head to the office to call a plumber. You get folks fed and changed to leave at one o’clock for the Falls.”
Pat met me with her arms folded. “I can’t cook dinner for 60 people without water!”
“I know. I’ll beg and plead for the plumber to get here as soon as possible. But it’s already noon. We may have to make do with sandwiches and cold cuts for dinner.”
The long march to the Camp Office for the emergency phone call became a journey of prayer. I knew we needed a miracle. Joshua had stopped the Jordan River. I needed roll, sewer, roll.
The bus seemed to be bouncing on its springs with excited swimmers when I returned. We could have three hours of fun before we returned to the unappealing prospect of cold sandwiches and sponge baths before the evening service. Randy popped the clutch and headed down the twisting road to the swimming hole.
The kids scattered like wild birds when they passed through the turnstiles at Turner Falls.
Randy cornered me immediately. “Did the plumber make any promises?”
“Nope. Every truck was out on service calls. He thought the earliest we might see a plumber would be tomorrow morning.”
“What will do all night, when we need to use the bathroom?”
“I have no idea.”
He shook his head. “Lord, help us!”
The refreshing, clear water of the towering waterfall and the main pool washed the worries away for a while. Randy performed thunderous cannonballs off the rocky cliffs. Youth splashed and chased through the water of Honey Creek. I rested under a tree, dangling my feet from a boulder into the cool water, trying to ignore the mental picture of poisoned water just one flush from overflowing onto concrete floors.
A miracle. Jesus calmed the ocean. But He never saw a plugged toilet. We were teetering on the verge of the worst youth camp ever.
The afternoon heat had warmed the asphalt to a flashpoint when we corralled the youth into the steamy bus. Exhaustion from the aquatic exertions and the roaring of the old bus engine brought silence. Randy and I coasted along, alone with our thoughts of the hardship that would greet us as 40 people adapted to primitive conditions in the crippled cabin.
The bus leaned around a mountain curve. We saw it at the same time.
“What in sam-hill?”
“Whoa, Nellie, whoa!” Randy mashed the clutch and the brake to the floor with all his might. I stood and grabbed the steel pole near the stairs. We lurched to a halt, staring in disbelief through the front glass.
A plunger stood in the middle of the road.
The plumber’s friend towered on its black, rubber cone, the yellow, wooden handle sticking up toward the heavens, straight as a soldier reporting for duty.
I jerked the handle to open the bus door, bounded down the stairs and dashed across the country road. Not a single scratch marred the tool, the paint as fresh as if it had just come from the shelf of the hardware store. No other vehicle was in sight. Under the blazing Oklahoma sky the plunger seemed a wood-and-rubber angel, evoking awe in the wonder of divine providence.
The students cheered as I boarded, brandishing the humble plumber’s friend above my head as a trophy. Randy revved up the old bus and we flew towards camp.
Our miracle had come, dropped down from Heaven to stop a bus headed to a camping catastrophe. It was a sign that gave us hope for hot showers, running water, and a quiet night.
When we stopped in front of the cabin, Pat met us with a smile.
“The sewer’s working again! We saw a plumber parked on the next street and begged him to come over. He ran his big rooter-thing down in the pipes behind the cabin. Five minutes later, the sinks made a huge sucking noise and everything drained out!”
I looked at Randy and held out our totem. “This plunger is so powerful, it doesn’t even need to get wet!”
Pat cocked her head. “Did you buy a plunger?”
Randy laughed, “You won’t believe it. We found it standing in the road. It’s our miracle plunger. God rescued us.”
The youth rushed past, ready to get out of their wet swimsuits and shower for the evening worship service.
“We’ll have a hot dinner ready in an hour,” Pat promised.
That night, I sat in the massive Tabernacle, basking in the soft breeze blowing under the towering wood roof. Our freshly-scrubbed students joined their voices with thousands of others for a Gaither tune, “I believe in miracles….” The image of our humble plunger came to my mind, tinged with an aura of the divine.
God does move in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform.
©Larry Payne 2010