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Salem Camp Meeting means memories and so much more

I have learned that the sands that flow through an hourglass seem to move much more rapidly as they near the end. I think some guy in Rome said the same thing in fewer words. “Tempus fugit.” He wasn’t just whistling Dixie. Time really does fly and those special annual events — like Christmas and the first college football game of the year — that used to take forever to get here, are now upon us with increasing regularity.

Well, maybe not college football, but I was taking yuletide decorations back up to the attic just last week, and it won’t be long until seasonal doodads will hit the store shelves again. The term “slow as Christmas” doesn’t have the same connotation that it used to. Not for me, at least.

I said that to say this.

Another annual event is upon us. It is camp meeting time at Salem. I am pretty sure I still have wood shavings in at least some of my shoes from last year’s gathering. People are always asking me to explain camp meeting to them. It is really hard to do, because unless you have experienced it for yourself, you will not understand the appeal it has to those of us who have spent our entire lives worshipping under the outdoor tabernacle on Salem Road.

Even if you have been to Salem once or twice, you still might not get it, especially if you got all dressed up, expecting a typical one-hour-and-let’s-go-home worship experience and wound up sweltering through a hot and humid Southern night. You may not have been able to appreciate the nuances of camp meeting in just one brief visit. Salem is much more than a 75-minute service on a summer’s evening. It is so much more.

Salem Camp Meeting is a grand eight-day reunion where friends and family gather to attempt to live together harmoniously under extreme and relatively primitive conditions. What goes on in the wooden structures we call tents that ring the grounds at Salem would make for great reality TV. The duck people out in Louisiana don’t have anything on most of us.

Salem is listening for the bell that regulates our lives for the week. One peal of the bell can send children scurrying to their bicycles to head off to craft time or a softball game. The same bell, at other times of the day, can send grandfathers on a slow walk across campus to the same pew they have sat in for decades.

Salem is remembering Bobby and Karen Milton on Saturday morning as kids of all ages participate in the Wide World of Salem Sports while adults stand around drinking coffee and reminiscing about camp meetings past.

“Remember when Bruce Erin landed the 11 Alive helicopter in front of the tabernacle?”

“Remember the time the squirrel fell down from the rafters while Bill Carl was preaching?”

“Remember the time the snake crawled out of the hotel fireplace during Bible class?”

“Remember … remember … remember …”

Salem is Big Sunday when everyone dresses for church and sometimes the bishop preaches and folks eat huge Sunday dinners — in their tents or at the hotel — and then actually sit on front porches and visit all afternoon.

Salem is crossing the road — a task that becomes more difficult each year — to visit the spring. Sometimes those visits take place in the bright daylight and involve large numbers of people of all ages. Sometimes the visits are more discrete. Many romances have been kindled at the Salem spring. I went there with a then-brand new girlfriend on a rainy August evening in 1981 and six days later my lovely wife Lisa had asked me to marry her.

Salem is eating the delicious fried chicken in the hotel dining room and sitting in the rocking chairs on the front porch. Salem, for me, is running off to visit Diane Howington for much needed junk food and stress-free conversation and much needed affirmation. Salem, for me, is watching the generational gathering presided over by Bill and Pat Rogers hoping that I will grow up to be just like Bill someday.

Salem is hearing Becky Ramsey and Alice Walker, the most identical twins I have ever known, play twin grand pianos throughout the week and hearing Becky’s husband, Sam, extoll the virtues of Salem campground all week in a Southern drawl that Herman Talmadge would envy.

Salem is Tom Roberts extolling us to “find a singing partner” and reminding us that “when we applaud we give a thank offering to God” and telling us that “we can’t sing ‘Standing on the Promises’ while sitting on the premises.”

Salem is Howard Kennedy waking us up with reveille each morning and putting us to bed with taps every night — and in between it is morning watch and Bible classes and services at 11 and 7:45 and fun and frivolity and meditation and making memories in between.

Salem is homemade peach ice cream.

But most of all — most of all — Salem is an opportunity to sing praises to a risen Savior and a merciful God, and to hear the Gospel proclaimed and to experience the sweet, sweet spirit that permeates the place if you let it.

Salem is under way right now. Please join us. It could change your life.