The last two summers of my elementary school years, I went to camp. The first time was pretty scary—I rarely had slept away from my parents. Although I was generally an independent sort, when there were sleepovers, friends slept at our house. We were the party house. I was worried about becoming homesick the way some people, in November, begin to worry about catching a cold. I might lose it. I might freak out.
This camp was in a tiny town in Mississippi. How tiny? A trip into “town” was a trip to Koscuisko, where Oprah Winfrey was raised. That place is no metropolis. They have a Wal-Mart, is all. The town where the camp was had a video rental place and a gas station. For a time, they had a tiny grocery store. And they had a church, of course. It was a town founded on religion.
The only activity in town revolved around bringing people to Jesus and keeping them firmly tethered there. Camp was one such program. The others were a Christian radio station and a boarding school.
I had been raised Lutheran: terribly average Protestant. We believed in Jesus, as a nice, clean, good man. Our sanctuary had a gold cross at the front. We had communion from small shot glasses, kneeling before that cross, two candles, and a 1960s textile backdrop that blended up from yellows and whites to deep blues near the ceiling. Other people might be going to hell if they didn’t believe what we believed. This was mentioned as an embarrassing aside. We were encouraged to bring friends to church, but, frankly, I didn’t buy the whole hell thing. It was so extreme. It didn’t make sense. I had grown up in this calm, orderly, pleasant suburb, and the idea of eternal damnation was way outside my reasonable middle-class mindset. I never saw my parents throw out Jesus like a life preserver to strangers. We did things like going door to door near Halloween asking for canned goods with my Sunday school class, and caroling at nursing homes. We followed rules and gave to the community in a neat, pleasant way.
In our cabin at camp, we read the same Bible stories that I had heard at church. I was a Sunday school whiz. I was down with these stories. When we raced to find books of the Bible, rather than memorize the order, I flipped through the upper-right corner, and usually won the glow-in-the-dark cross or the little wooden picture of Jesus the shepherd. I was a fast flipper and a fast reader. Beyond merely reading stories or running page-turning contests, though, the counselors at camp wanted us to memorize Bible verses. That was weird. I had never been asked to memorize anything but the multiplication tables. And, I mean, I got the gist of the book. Why cram it in my brain word for word?
A week of camp culminated in a theatrical reenactment of Jesus’ life, produced very simply, in the woods. We walked across to the other side of the lake on this important night, and sat on wooden benches. (One question I always have is: how are they going to fake the nails in the hands? At the camp production, someone just slipped his hands through ropes around each end of the cross’ crossbar.) At the end of the show, when all the bedsheet-clad counselors had left the stage, it was announced that if you had not yet “asked Jesus into your heart,” you could stay back and have someone assist you in praying this prayer.
I wasn’t sure if I was in the clear at this point, or not. Hadn’t I been raised properly Christian? Hadn’t I spent every Sunday of my life behaving properly in church? Wasn’t God cool with me like my parents were? If they didn’t reprimand, that meant things were cool. I wasn’t often reprimanded. I was a reasonably compliant kid.
I also couldn’t make a spectacle of myself by staying back. Wouldn’t my parents be shamed if their daughter, the daughter of the president of the congregation and the Sunday school teachers, needed remedial tutoring in God? I did not need special attention. I could certainly handle this myself.
Although I was not convinced it was necessary, I did innoculate myself against hell back in my bunk, mentally pressing out: Jesus, come into my heart. I want to be saved. Would that do it? Did Jesus know that I doubted the process, and would this make it all invalid? Wasn’t God smarter than I was? Maybe it a letter-of-the-law type of thing, like going to church every Sunday? God just needed a “t” crossed with the proper prayer? Did Jesus know that I understood why a lot of people could think his whole saving-the-world story made no sense? Did God know that I would hate Him if I thought he sent people to hell for something so dumb as not praying a one-time-only, kindergarten type of prayer? There’s no way I could work with that kind of God.
I’d like to say that the whole thing seems completely silly to me now. I secretly think, well, if the world is crazier than I thought… if I am wrong… then at least I have my Pascal wager inoculation from sixth grade. I often believe that there is divinity in the world, that it is mysterious and powerful, and, at its core, productive. I generally expect that death is the end. I plan for nothing afterward. If the mystery of me continues to exist somehow, I hope that will be as pleasant as the moments I’ve felt close to God in my mortal life. But I guess I’ll be covered either way.