A wonderful contribution from Thomas Hayes.

I’m going to tell a few stories and then tell you what the stories mean. But first a cautionary tale: When my middle son was very young, his grandmother took him to see The Wizard of Oz. Afterwards, I asked him what it was about, and he replied, “It was about a girl, a scarecrow, a robot, and a bear.” The moral is: in relation to stories and their meanings we are all young.

When I was a boy, I used to attend a summer camp with my best friend, Steve. Steve’s uncle, Uncle Jim, ran the camp at Fall Creek Falls State Park, Group Camp Two. Now this camp was a Bible camp, and Uncle Jim was a preacher. We had Bible classes in the morning and devotionals in the afternoon. At night we listened to Uncle Jim preach. The day ended huddling on a softball field to gaze up at the heavens full of stars.

Uncle Jim’s sermons escalated in intensity each night until the last night of camp when he would deliver a fire-n-brimstone lesson designed to frighten the unbeliever, the unrepentant, or the unbaptized out of their seats, down the aisle, and into the nearby creek where their sins were washed away. Now some might find this weird, and as I grew older, I confess there were times when I felt embarrassed about Bible Camp. But something happened recently that gave me perspective.

A few years ago I reconnected with my friend, Steve, and we went backpacking — again in Fall Creek Falls State Park. At one point on the hike, we realized we were near the back boundary of Group Camp Two. For old times’ sake, we left the trail and made our way into the camp ground. Emerging out of the woods, we were surprised to find thirty or forty people dressed as wizards, elves, and other creatures. They were armed, divided into two groups, and about to engage in battle. We watched in disbelief until we were approached by a wood nymph. She confessed that they were only a group of secularists, mostly accountants and lawyers, up from Atlanta. She added that they just really enjoyed fantasy role-playing war games on the weekends but that they really were quite rational. The fighting would be over shortly, she said, and she invited us to stay and enjoy some “meade.” We declined the offer. But I was cured of any embarrassment about Bible Camp. It turns out it was not by a long shot the weirdest thing that had happened at Group Camp Two, and in hindsight I really had learned a lot there.

First, Uncle Jim’s sermons taught me that, if you’re a fundamentalist preacher, there’s no better place to live than at the one curve in an otherwise long, straight road. If you’re lucky, then God himself seemingly will have planted a tree in your yard at the exact point where the performance limits of most tires and the reckless yearnings of the teenage heart intersect, and as a result, you will witness an unusually large number of horrific automobile accidents. They’ll happen mostly at night. You’ll run from your home with a light into the smoky odor of fire, debris, gasoline, and young people split against that tree. If you’re Uncle Jim, you ask them, “Boy, have you been baptized?” Sometimes they answered good and sometimes not, according to Uncle Jim, but either way it had an effect on the listener who knew he too faced that long, almost straight road home.

The second thing I learned was this: Don’t ever fall in love at camp because at camp you tend to forget who you are, and someone is bound to get hurt. One year, Steve and I were rummaging for salamanders in the woods when Steve came across a baby rabbit. Their eyes met, and they fell in love. The rabbit was not well, and Steve, blinded by love, set about nursing the rabbit to health. He forsook his friends. No games, no truth interested him. He gathered grass and other nutrients and spent most of the day with his sickly lover in the cabin.

Now the cabins were drafty. Built on concrete slab, they had screen windows, three bunk beds along the back wall, and a single entrance on the front that opened with a loose iron latch.

One morning after breakfast I returned to the cabin to find Steve in good spirits.

“I think she’s feeling better, today,” he said.

“Your mother is feeling better, too,” I added. I was starting to get irritated. I was also twelve.

“No, really, watch this. She’ll come to me when I call her.”

Steve lifted the bunny from her box, placed her on the floor on the cabin’s eastern side, and ran back to the western wall. He crouched and began calling her name, which by the way was Lil’ Hoppy. To my surprise, Lil’ Hoppy rose and headed toward Steve. She was weak. There was no cantor here, yet the fragile bunny limped deliberately, even bravely to her lover.

About that time something exciting happened at the concession stand. Our bunk mate, Bubba Bray, a witness, decided we must hear about it at once. He was a little kid. He was wearing a yellow shirt which caught my eye through the screen as he ran down the rooted path toward our cabin. Headlong, he threw open the door to share the good news.

I mentioned that the cabins were drafty. One reason for this was the one-inch gap between the concrete floor and the door’s bottom edge. In this space, the door, flung open, caught the left hind leg of Lil’ Hoppy, and although the wind passed through that gap with ease, the hare did not. Lil’ Hoppy’s hind quarter acted like a door stop perfectly in every way except to actually stop the door which continued inward — tearing, ripping, and smearing the coney in a perfect arc of death until the hinge fully turned to reveal the final scene: The lover, Steve, in grief, the death agent, Bubba, in terror, both standing over Lil’ Hoppy’s body which now lay divided, literally torn in two and connected by a mere trail of blood and bone and fur. A thick and dreadful darkness came over us.

So what does all this mean? To understand you must know that the first part of the story is an allegory, the second part contains a lie, and the third, the part of the story about Lil’ Hoppy, is an apocalypse. Let me explain working backwards.

An apocalypse is a revelation, a removing of the scales from our eyes. Although popularly associated with end-times prophecy, it more accurately, I think, is intended to reveal a present, spiritual reality or truth. Lil’ Hoppy’s sudden and unexpected death does not, therefore, mean that death will one day come. Rather, the story of Lil’ Hoppy uncovers death as an ever present, spiritual reality. Though we may love life and tell ourselves that things are getting better, sin and death are crouching at the door. Let him who has eyes see.

Now the second part of the story, specifically Uncle Jim’s gospel message, contains a lie. Given the spiritual reality of death, what are we to do? The antidote too often prescribed is two-parts fear and one-part fundamentalism. Be afraid and follow a set of rules and you too can be a part of the club, control your fate, and cheat death. But that is not God’s word.

God’s word tells us that “when the sun sets and darkness has fallen,” and it should be your body torn asunder, and it should be you who must walk through the valley of death, there stands God in your place; there walks God; there hangs God; to there God descended, from there he rose and ascended, and now God, death’s conqueror, seeks you, and he does not lead with fear; rather, with perfect love he says, “Be not afraid; I am your shield; your very great reward.” He is the smoking fire pot, the blazing torch. His name is Jesus.

But that is a hard thing to believe in this day and age — that there is a God, that he loves you, that he died for you. And that brings me to the allegory. We are on a backpacking trip through life. And the beaten path along which we walk is the work of an areligious world. And the signposts say that God does not exist. He can not be proven through empiricism (that is, by the scientific method). The stories told about Jesus, they say, are just that: stories and myths. Grow up and find what is true for you, they say; be authentic; buy and sell and do interesting work for the common good; trust empiricism; run everything through its filter just to be sure; and things will be okay in the end.

If you’re a Christian in today’s world, you will have doubts. How can you know? How can you trust your faith? The signs to the contrary seem so certain in comparison to faith.

But here’s a secret. If you get off the trail and go into the woods, you may be surprised by what you find: an increasing number of rational, enlightened secularists there. They are not in agreement, but they’ve sensed the limits of empiricism, some chinks in its armor. They miss the enchanted world, the world inhabited by faeries and created by God. They know they can’t go back, but they are curious about the old stories, the old ways. You can meet them there if you look hard enough; you will find they have some of the same questions you do, and you may find that you by grace have better answers. You have a God greater than their or your doubts. May he be with us all.