An Atheist at Church Camp, or, How the Word Does Not Return Void, or, a Hellhound's Hallelujah
The summer I turned 15, I went to my one and only church camp.
I wish I could say I was transformed there, that an altar call drew me forward, trembling and tearful, toward the risen Christ to whom I joyously offered my life without reserve at that moment. I wish I could say I was baptized there, the girl I thought I was sinking into the depths like a stone, blessedly never to be heard from again, while the new rose, washed pristine, reborn, fresh as dew, new as spring. I wish I could say I sang “Our God is an Awesome God” with uninhibited earnestness, my arms raised and my heart surrendered, His love supplanting my crippling teenage self-consciousness. I wish I could say my soul was pierced by a word, by a revelation, by Jesus himself. I wish I could say I had even the modicum of reverence that may have moved me to, say, keep my eyes closed during the prayer time. But none of that happened.
My dear friend Emily invited me and I honestly don’t recall why I agreed except, well, she was one of my closest friends. I spent the car ride there reading a Martin Amis novel, which is highly inappropriate reading material for a 14-year-old and probably all ages. I was a budding atheist, or at the very least a baby cynic, rapidly becoming learned in the ways of smug skepticism. At that point I hadn’t the boldness to utter the word “atheist” but if pressed would claim agnosticism, which, besides the atheism which I didn't yet possess the mettle (or rather arrogance) to claim, I believed was the only reasonable stance of any thoughtful, mature human person who had at the very least read Camus.
My obnoxiousness, apparently, knew no bounds.
Over the next week, my ocular muscles underwent extensive conditioning as I raised my eyes not heavenward but rather rolled them over and over and over again in a disdainful dismissal of this God I couldn’t see, didn’t understand, and further, wasn’t really interested in knowing.
Ergo, I reasoned in my adolescent mind, bloated with pride beyond pride by its effete but voracious reading and its fancies of intellectual grandeur, He did not exist and all these sad, pitiable people were prostrating uselessly before a mere vapor while the allure of The World and all its riches beckoned. During worship I sighed heavily and crossed my arms over my chest and ruminated bitterly and tried to dodge the rapidly swiping arms of those around me performing the sign-language motions to “Our God is an Awesome God”.
I pined for a boy with bleached hair, who, the first day of camp, I saw wearing the t-shirt of a Southern Californian punk band whose music I had never really heard because my sister would never let me borrow the CD in a HUNDRED MILLION BILLION YEARS but whom I just knew were cool and thus imputed coolness upon him. True to my modus operandi, I never spoke to him but instead spent the entire week nursing a tragic and indelible fixation upon him and then mourned dramatically as he failed to return my unspoken love. I’m sure I even assiduously avoided eye contact or any other noticeable interest yet, alas, the fact that my soul’s silent yearning was not requited was devastating. I treated our group leader, a friendly middle-aged man who was someone’s dad, with a disdain just shy of sneering. But he just kept being friendly! Ugggghhhhh.
One day during that week we crowded around a campfire for a Bible study. The teacher was young, bearded and bespectacled and seemed kinda cool so I think I immediately developed a crush on him too (ah, the desperate, undiscriminating and wildly changeable nature of a teenage girl’s affections)*. He invited us to go around the circle and share where we were “at” with our faith, with our relationship to God.
As my turn approached and I shifted uneasily on the hard log beneath me, I felt fluttering nervousness but at the same time a frisson of giddy rebelliousness shot through me and when the time came I publicly confessed that I didn’t believe, at once relishing the shocked faces around me but also feeling a twinge of dark shame.
It began as a confident declaration: “I don’t really believe in God at all,” but faded to a murmured “I dunno, I just don’t,” when some outraged kid down the line cried “Why not?!”
The teacher didn’t react, much. The shock receded and we read something from the Bible I can’t recall at all but afterwards he came up to me and asked me if I had heard of C.S. Lewis. I said I hadn’t, until he referenced the Chronicles of Narnia, and it was then that I remembered the animated version I had watched as a child, with the devilishly debonair queen prone to sudden conniption fits who plied a child with Turkish delights and which also had some weird plotline about a lion dying.
That was a Christian thing? I thought, thoroughly confused. The wondrous symbolism, and metaphor of Aslan as Jesus, had been extravagantly lost on me.
Or was it?
I wish I could tell those people, now, that their words were not wasted. I wish I could tell them that the girl who seemed consigned to the world, pledged to the enemy, gleefully running toward ruin, poisoned by a grossly premature cynicism, is now the freakiest (can I claim that title?) of Jesus freaks, so dang excited about her Lord and Savior that during a recent stroll through the Leon cemetery that I reiterated several times to Steven I want a large tombstone plastered with Scripture, crosses and hymn verses. My name and date of birth and death are thoroughly optional, I told him. All I want is my Savior glorified.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember how the spit on Jesus’ face was once mine, the ugly jeers that assailed His precious ears once mine as well. But I think it helps me have more compassion and forgiveness than anger when I hear His name hissed or sworn like an epithet, sometimes even incorporated in a perverse travesty of creativity as a compound word with the worst profanities mankind’s tongue has loosed. I've heard it all. And I feel more grief than anger: If only you knew. If only you knew the One you desecrated, if only you knew who this One truly was. If only you knew what could save you, or rather Who.
Thank you to my beloved Clive Staples, whose “Till We Have Faces” I just read for the first time and ADORED. But thank you even more to everyone who ever mentioned Jesus’ name in my eminently ungrateful presence, weaving threads into my life that drew me at first kicking and braying but then, finally, running with abandon toward the One who I never knew I always wanted. Thank you to the warm, open face of the dad who kept smiling at me through all my glowering at him. Thank you to the Bible teacher who mentioned Lewis. Thank you to Emily’s grandparents, who were probably wary of this silent sullen teen reading a crappy English novel in the back of their truck but never showed anything but kindness.
And most of all, thank you to the God who runs toward the prodigal who makes the least ambivalent gesture toward repentance, who leaves the ninety-nine obedient to chase after the one wanton wanderer.
Sometimes good soil isn’t good until many years later because the sky above the planted seed sleeps in darkness until, at last, the harvest is ripe and cracks riven the hard heart of the firmament and light pours in. And once the light shines in the darkness, the darkness will not overcome it.
So keep planting and keep digging, friends, even when you shovel clangs hollow against what seems the most unyielding rock. Yes, I know Jesus told the disciples to go ahead and pack it in if ears are unhearing and hearts seem calcified with skepticism. But once the dust you’ve kicked off your heels clears, I believe your words will not be wasted. Those church camp saints have never seen their fruit in me, and you may never see some of the fruit your utterance of the gospel again and again bears.
But someday, in the kingdom come, in the face-to-face glory, you will see: the prismatic web shimmering in all its beauty, ramifying in stunning patterns whose complexity is beyond all earthly imaginings, all the people you touched and the hearts you contributed to tenderizing. I believe the first will be the last and the last will be the first and you will see the most unlikely people, people who ridiculed and mocked, renowned sinners and skeptics and maybe even some twerp kid who nearly ruined your church camp Bible study with her proud unbelief, all of them praising the Lamb. How sweet it will be. Your words are never wasted because His are never wasted.
*Steven Lande is far more virile, handsome, dashing and captivating than anyone I ever pined after, dated, looked at once, etc., just to be perfectly clear!