Campfire

One
muggy Minnesota morning during the summer straddling the scrawny divide
between my fanciful childhood and jaded adolescence, my best friend
Robby and I found religion. It’d been hiding, not surprisingly, inside
the whitewashed pine chapel of Lake Bronson Galilee Lutheran Bible
Camp.

Robby
and I first met, with a magnetic force, five years earlier at a
baptism. Hayseeds both, we each had Elmer’s Glue skin, John Deere
green eyes, and an electric shock of curly blond hair. We also shared
a passion for C.S. Lewis’s stories, a furious love of outdoor
exploration, and a consuming need to spend time together. Bible Camp
was just an annual extension of that need.

The morning we discovered religion, head counselor Neil finished Rise And Shine services by directing all campers to join hands around the chapel’s suspended oak cross in a chorus of “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord.”

Robby took my hand in his.

Seven
measures into the round, late morning humidity oozed in through the
levered windows. Sunlight beamed through the bible stenciled into the
center of the most prominent stained glass window, angelfying each
crooning countenance. Robby’s slick and gamy hand swung gently with
mine in time with the music.

Just
before the last bit, Neil twirled his finger in the sunlit dust,
indicating we should repeat the entire hymn, splitting the stanzas
between the boys and the girls. With exponential vigor the music
bounced from us to the chapel walls and back again. This swirl of
echoes tugged at me with an insistent, muscular strength.

Something
was at work. The song, the sunlight, the heat, Robby’s hand,
collectively they pierced through my skin, infusing a soulful mood. I
felt sheltered, peaceful, and poised.

“I
feel…religious,” I thought. Not a jarring revelation, as I was after
all in church, in bible camp. But God wasn’t really what I was there
for, and yet, in some form, He appeared anyway. How odd. Eventually
Neil axed the air, and everyone filtered out into the muggy broth,
eager to shed their clammy church clothes for swim trunks.

But
neither Robby nor I could recede easily into camp tomfoolery. He too
had felt simultaneously elevated and anchored by the music. While
changing in our cabin we discussed that feeling, then religion, which
inevitably fell to talk of Heaven.

“Maybe
it’s like Narnia,” Robby gushed. “Aslan, enchanted candies, talking
animals!” Any other camper would have saved face by chiding this
fancy, but I admitted I had a similar hope. Heaven had to incorporate
some childish magic, or it’d just be eternally dull.

Later
that day we sprawled on our coconut-scented beach towels on the coarse
pebbles above Nestea-colored Lake Bronson. Our conversation hadn’t
stopped, so naturally we came to hell. On this subject we knew only
what we’d been taught by rural Lutheranism: whoever accepts Christ as
his savior has a free pass through Heaven’s Gate, as long as he asks
regularly, meaningfully, for forgiveness of all sins. But within
individual families, the rules were murkier.

Robby’s
family was bent meekly inward toward his father, Herald, who ruled
fiercely, religiously, using confusion as a tool and hell as a strap.
And occasionally he used an actual strap.

“Sometimes,”
Robby confessed, “like when we stole those crabapples, I’ll think,
‘What if I died, right now? Would I wake up in hell just because I
haven’t, yet, told God, sorry?'”

“It’s
a puzzle,” I admitted. “And what about all the sins we forgot to ask
God’s forgiveness for? What happens to those when we die?”
Robby frowned. “It’s not like we see a priest; nobody’s hearing the sins and asking, ‘Sure that’s all of them?'”

“Right,” I said scraping sand from my taffy. “It’s just God and us.”
Lutherans
are proud to have removed the Catholic’s confessional middleman, but at
that moment I feared perhaps we’d been too efficient.

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