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Copyright 2018 Joey Cook, Conway, AR All Rights Reserved




Without a doubt, it was the craziest 12-hour period of my life, and six of it had been spent sleeping.


It was a gorgeous evening in the Pacific Northwest. As the shadows lengthened, light burst through every crack and crevice between trees and buildings on the campus of Evergreen State University in West Olympia, Washington. We had been told that this was the most liberal college in the United States, but for a kid from the south, graduating from college with a music or theatre degree was a left-wing activity. After spending some time with our new friend Rory, I had a better understanding of the liberal arts.


We met Rory while walking through a mid-afternoon tour of the college. He was reciting poetry over, what at least seemed to be, random strums on the guitar. Afterwards, we applauded what seemed to be very creative prose. He then bowed in thankfulness and offered the guitar to Lane. Lane immediately thumbed out a new worship song that we had been singing as a part of the nightly program associated with our mission. That mission, ‘City Reach’ was essentially a good deeds and good news project that included 200 or so college students who would descend on a city hoping to see residents come to know the life-changing message of Jesus. As we began to dialogue with our new friend, we discovered that Rory was homeless although that was not how he described it. In his words, Rory’s home was the forest. This came as quite a surprise to many of us who only spent time in the woods when we were mountain biking, hiking, hunting, or camping. Evidently, this was pretty normal protocol for local students. “70% of the campus lives in these woods”, Rory informed us. “Yeah, it’s beautiful out there. Wanna eat dinner and go out there with me tonight?”


We had prayed that God would open up opportunities to connect and share the Good News of Jesus with people at Evergreen College. This opportunity was not quite what we expected, but I was blessed enough to be in the company of guys who are not afraid to take risks. The crew I came with were dedicated and we knew that we were there with purpose. It seemed now as though Rory might have been that purpose.


“Yes, but only after our gathering,” we told Rory. “Gathering?” Rory asked. “Yes, we follow Jesus together and tonight we are getting ready to come together to share some stories of today’s service projects and celebrate through music, as well as learn more about God and the life that he has called us to lead from the Bible” I explained. “Can I come?” Rory rebutted. “Of course,” we collectively stated. During that gathering, Rory said that he would like to follow this same Jesus that we follow who motivates us to serve others. On a street curb after our gathering, Rory confessed his sin and trusted Jesus as his new Lord and Savior.


“Ready to go to the woods?”


“As ready as we’ll ever be,” my friend Carson retorted. “We’ll get our hammocks!”


On the way into the woods, Rory told us that the experience is more meaningful if we don’t turn on our flashlights, but rather rely on the light of the moon. “Your eyes will adjust,” he said. And he was right. Our eyes adjusted to the darkness and the path began to take shape. A few hundred yards into our late-night forest hike, Rory stopped our caravan and wrapped his arms around a large Cyprus tree. “If you hold it for eight seconds, your body will release the same amount of endorphins as it does while hugging another human. The eyeballs of all five men began to bounce back and forth as we contemplated our next move.


I suppose this was the moment I officially became a tree hugger ...along with the rest of the guys. A half mile or so later, we noticed faint glow in the distance.


As we neared what we came to realize was a campfire, mystery ensued. We quickly noticed that, although there were logs laid down to provide fireside seating, no one was present on them.


“Hello...” Rory spoke into the vast span of trees surrounding the trailhead. “Hello?”


“Are you cops?” a voice echoed back.


“Do I look like a cop?” This clever comeback was well-spoken, given the fact that Rory stood about 5’10 inches with wavy red hair that made its way past his chin, just shy of his shoulders, all around his ears. It was a pretty safe bet that Rory hadn’t bathed in quite some time. The smell that hovered around his stick-figure frame would have classified him as “a man of nature” for sure. His answer seemed to satisfy the request of the mystery man. We followed him as he slowly entered the scene and proceeded to sit at the fire in silence.


The next few moments could accurately be described as “awkward silence.” But the black haired, slightly unkempt man who appeared to be somewhere in his early thirties broke the silence. “My name’s Righteous,” he said in a manner that matched his mysterious entrance.


“Hi Righteous, I’m Rory,” our tour guide stated as we all sat somewhere wedged between fear and amazement at the scene that had continued to unfold before us.


“Sorry, about asking you if you were cops. I escaped from the city and you just can’t be too sure these days,” Righteous said.


“You’re telling me,” I thought to myself, hoping that I had not mistakenly stated the phrase out loud.

We continued the odd introductions around the fire. Aaron, Dakota, Carson, Lane, Joey. One at a time, each just as uncomfortable as the next.


“Hey, have you guys ever walked on coals?” Rory broke the silence. Another moment of us all eyeballing one another with raised eyebrows, and we were pretty clear to have shared the same answer of “No…” And in the same unexpected pace of our adventure, we would now be presented with the opportunity. As Rory began to drag red hot remnants of what was once large logs, he tried to reassure us that this was a great idea and that “people do it all the time and don’t get hurt,” a line I have heard before and even used from time to time to bring others into precarious situations that would later be worth telling stories about.


Rory went first. His bony and pale feet softly stepped, one after the other, until he reached approximately 12 feet to the other side. Once across, he let out a shriek of victory. His smile seemed to wrap from ear to ear. “You just gotta commit,” he said. “And never stop moving.” Our group of newbies hesitated to form the line. But after a minute, I knew what I had to do. “Let’s do this,” I said and immediately made my way across the smoldering coals. “Whew! That was a rush!” Now I get it. It never made sense before this moment, but now it does. Slowly but surely, nearly half of the group reluctantly made their way across. Then I decided to cross again. Turns out, the second trip wasn’t nearly as efficient as the first. Somehow, a coal pressed its way into the small space between my third and pinky toe, immediately creating a blister on a very tender spot underfoot. “Still worth it”, I thought to myself.


Certain that nothing was going to top this adrenaline-infused event, we were quick to find out we were wrong. After hanging a bit longer at Righteous’ fire, Rory extended yet another invitation. “Have you ever swam with bio-luminescent bacteria?” Once again, the group found consensus in not having experienced this particular activity.


“It’s cool,” Rory said, “just watch.”


Just then, he reached down and picked up a rock and flung it into the dark gap in the trees, into what we could only perceive as some type of body of water, lit by the reflection of the moon. Immediately at the point of impact, a bright, neon green circle appeared at the center ripple of the waters, making its way gently outward until the water returned to a smooth black layer.


“They give off a glow when irritated,” Rory informed his new friend group. “Come on, it’s even better when you are in the water!”


About that time, Rory began to strip down to his tighty whities. He then jumped in the water and we watched in childlike wonder as the bacteria put off a brilliant glow all around him. He assured us that the water felt great and that was just enough to convince the rest of us to join him in this late-night swim, which was beginning to feel like a euphoric dream. Between his convincing and my foot hurting from the fire-walk this actually started to seem like a good strategy to cool it down. As I reflect on this experience four years later, those ten minutes still feel like a distant fairy-tale. We laughed and played like little children, giddy with excitement and wonder. We were amazed at what we were getting to take part in. It was as if we were actually living out a scene that you’d only see in some cool sci-fi movie.


After our swim, we got dressed and decided to warm ourselves by the fire for a bit. We shared a few snacks that we had thrown in a bag before we set out that evening. After putting some food in our bellies, we said our goodbyes to Righteous. Rory told us that we would be sleeping “just up the hill” from the fire and that we should get going in order to set up our hammocks and get a good night’s rest. Little did we know that the “hill” that Rory had referred to was more like a cliff that we had to scale. We clung to tree roots, stepped on one another’s shoulders, and even clawed in the dirt in order to get to our cliff-top “campsite”. And of course, we proceeded in a near pitch black setting using only the light of the moon. After we made it to the top, we found a grove of trees that, with some creative engineering, would serve as our anchor points for the hammocks. Hours later, what we observed at sun rise made all of the effort worthwhile.


As the light peaked over the edge of my hammock, I forced a squint and peered at what the darkness had engulfed and hidden from us, the night before. The hammocks bordered a ridge on the bluff of the Puget Sound. There was not one puff of wind and only a single boat, with a sail hoisted high in the air, sat motionless on the bay. The edge of the cliff that we slept on provided us a bird’s eye view of the most spectacular scene my eyes have ever seen. The reflection of the boat on the water was as clear as the boat itself. The radiant reds, yellows, and oranges provided by the first glimpse of the top half of the morning sun seemed to swallow the Earth, wrapping my fellow travelers and I in warmth and beauty; a pleasant alarm clock indeed. My attention then turned behind me as I heard the strumming of a well-tuned guitar. I made my way out of the suspended cocoon and toward the fire to hear what Rory was playing at the cool warm edge of our newly lit campfire, complete with the freshest sticks and logs around. “How did you light this fire?” I asked Rory. “I made my way down the hill this morning and took a coal from Righteous’ fire in order to start ours this morning. I guess you could say that it’s simply a metaphor that speaks to what Jesus has done in my heart as a result of meetings you guys.” Wow. I sat in amazement as the wonder continued to accumulate in my own heart.


“One of the people in your group gave me this Bible and I’m really enjoying it. Do you want to read with me?” Rory then read from one of the Gospels for a bit and handed the book to me. I continued where he left off. We read the story of the farmer scattering seed together at the fire that he built by bringing a coal up from the fire of a friend. And as he read, my heart was blazing. “This is as good as life can be on this side of eternity,” I thought to myself. Before long, everyone was awake, sitting around the fire, singing songs to Jesus. We sang about his mercy and his grace. We sang about His forgiveness and His love. Then we wrote a song about our experience that went something like this:


“Have you ever walked on a bed of coals?


Have you ever swam with neon fish as they glow?


Have you ever hugged a tree or woke up on a beautiful sea?”


The song was a proclamation of the evening that we spent making memories with our new friend. It was a song about taking risks and trying new things. It was a song of faith; the kind of faith that leaps before looking or stands headlong in the face of fear for some type of pursuit of the unknown. That evening, Rory experienced Jesus and so did we. It was an experience that marked us and continues to be influential to this day.


n the epic 80’s movie, Stand By Me, a group of boys have the experience of a lifetime. They experience true freedom, fear, laughter, and even death. Once they return, something is different. They can’t put their finger on it, but they know they will never be the same. After we sang, we walked back to Evergreen State University having been infused with wonder, awe, and a sense of accomplishment. And stories about that night still never quite do it justice.


Jesus is inviting you on a great adventure in the company of friends. And, somewhere in that journey, discipleship happens. You’ll have trouble knowing how or when it actually occurred, but you will return different. Nothing will ever look the same.