That summer, seventy years ago, was very important in my life.
I was fourteen years old, and it had been a very difficult year. My adopted parents had a difficult relationship. I would sometimes lie awake at night listening to them argue.
My mother Ford, although a strong religious influence on me, was also a very troubled person. Early that year she simply left, and was gone for months – we did not know where. Later I learned she had gone to Winnipeg, and lived there under an assumed name, running from her fears. In late spring she returned but the strain in their marriage remained.
That summer I went for a week to the Blue Water Bible conference, a new place named for the deep blue river on which it stood. I had fun, liked the other kids, but expected to be bored by the speaker, Oswald J. Smith, a well-known pastor and missionary leader. I remember his shock of white hair and piercing blue eyes, and raspy voice.
When he announced his topic as the “Morning Watch” I was sure I’d be bored. Instead, as he told how he prayed, I was intrigued.
“I walk as I pray,” he said, “because I am quite nervous and if I kneel I get agitated. I pray out loud so my mind doesn’t wander. And I read a verse from the Psalms and turn it into a prayer to give me fresh words.”
That inspired me. I could pray and get exercise at the same time!
Early the next morning I got up, took a big Bible my mother had given me, and went by myself to a nearby woods. There I walked up and down, hoping no one was watching, read a Psalm, and said a prayer. What the Psalm was, or my words, I have no idea.
I do know that the presence of Jesus became very real to me. Prayer became more than rote words. I knew that God cared for a lonely fourteen year old and would be with me, no matter how hard things were at home.
That day prepared me for an opportunity to serve and lead which would come suddenly, just a few weeks later, when I was asked to lead a fledgling youth movement in our city.
I revisited that spot several years ago. The buildings are mostly gone. What is left is ramshackle. The grounds are weedy and rough. The woods where I prayed much smaller than I remembered.
But the reality of that morning has stayed with me across these many years.
And oh yes, I met Dr. Smith some years later and told him what that time meant to me. He was astonished.
“At Blue Water conference,” he exclaimed. “I thought nothing came out of that week at all”!