The Devil’s Doorway
Brother Jeremy wore his Sunday best. His black pinstripe suit and baby blue paisley tie clashed hard. His presence clashed similarly with the room, a serious man against silly walls with random items strung up on fishing wire to serve as quirky decorations. He was the only one over 30 and the only one taking himself seriously. His sermon hit all the usual notes — I had been in these chairs before. Heaven and Hell. Repentance and Salvation. Judgment and Wrath. He wanted to scare us onto the path of righteousness.
We were the company of mockers. Bro. Jeremy had the slightest stutter, and each time he tripped over his words the merciless students in our youth group grinned and looked around. His sermon that Wednesday night meandered through the Romans Road. Already out of breath by chapter one, he read: “For the wrath of God is revealed from h-heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” He reached the third chapter when Steve who ran the soundboard tried to adjust the microphone but unleashed a feedback shriek loud enough to pierce my right ear. Bro. Jeremy, distracted and annoyed, tried to continue. America’s sins forced God to destroy her with hurricanes and wildfires. Abortion, drugs and alcohol, fornication and homosexuality, R-rated movies, card playing, school dances, string bikinis, punk music, atheism, Islam, and more were unleashing national destruction and betraying the investment God had made in our promised land. My friend passed a note my way. I opened it to find a crude sketch of Bro. Jeremy. I laughed, hushed but with poor timing, throwing off his sermon again. Across the room a volunteer leader had to tell a girl to please close her flip phone, thank you. “Nothing in this life m-matters if you live for yourself,” Bro. Jeremy tried to thunder. “For all have sinned and come short of the g-glory of God.”
He said nothing new. I listened anyway. The invitation had promised there would be pizza and snacks later. My hunger gnawed at me. I saw some unfamiliar faces at tonight’s revival gathering. Next to Lauren Brooks sat Samatha Reynolds, who was in my algebra class that year but had never been to our church before. She was quiet and unassuming but popular in our school. A few seats past her, Connor Hall, my neighbor down the block, sat and fidgeted. He skateboarded and cussed and drank beer when he could sneak it. He must have believed the invitation. His mistake. “For the wages of sin is death,” said Bro. Jeremy.
Our youth room tried to capture the fun spontaneity that young people brought, but contained it within the cold, disciplined asceticism that old people would fund. Like youth ministry at large, this room sat at the intersection between traditions with deep roots and well-funded spokesmen, and the revolutions brought about by youth culture, motivated by logic inscrutable to the elders. Youth groups trained young whippersnappers to stay off the old man’s lawn, so to speak. They bent our lives into irregular, disjointed forms to satisfy the regretful nostalgia of boomers discontent with the mistakes they made in the age of free love. Here the room consisted of chairs arranged toward the pulpit, an altar used solely for altar calls, and on the left wing, a ping-pong table and refrigerator. Lemon and lime and cherry walls surrounded this kitschy take on the ancient assembly, whose routines we reenacted weekly with more or less earnestness and intensity. “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
I glanced at the clock to see how much longer Bro. Jeremy would go on, though no clock could answer that question. Glancing back, something caught my eye. Someone. He was new here. Didn’t go to my school. Blonde hair, green eyes, green shirt. On his shirt a name tag sticker hung half attached.
MY NAME IS
I wondered where he came from and who he knew here. In our small town, there weren’t many other teenagers than those who went to my school or went to our church. I kept looking at him. He looked like an athlete, probably popular wherever he was from, and comfortable in this room, despite sitting alone and being new. Somehow he kept my attention. As Bro. Jeremy rambled on, I found my gaze drifting over to Noah again and again. What was he like? Would he become a regular in our group? Would he ever want to be my friend? I looked down at my Bible, trying to focus back on the message. “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” But Noah held my focus. I looked back at him.
The summer before, our youth group went to Devil’s Lake State Park up north. Fifteen of us, three leaders and the rest high schoolers, went to the lake there and relaxed for an afternoon. We went to a roller coaster park in town, too. Come nightfall we slept in tents on uneven ground and had to scramble to drape tarps when an unexpected storm rolled through. The trip was not all that religious, it turned out. Just fun activities and some games to help us bond as a group for three days. One day we hiked an uphill trail in the State Park. Our leaders said it was a real hike, but worth it to see Devil’s Doorway at the end. Ancient as the Ice Age, this formation perplexes scientists, our leaders told us, since they can’t explain it using natural processes. Only God could make this pile of rocks. The State Park had gotten its name from settlers who misinterpreted the natives. “Spirit Lake” in their tongue sounded like “Devil’s Lake” in ours, and so it was. To those settlers this rock formation looked like a door, and so it was. Our leaders did not know this history, and spun some yarn about God making these rocks to throw Satan through them into the lake beyond.
We reached the bluffs after an hour struggling along rocky and ill-kept paths. Damp heat made it harder and we hiked with much grumbling and complaining. At the bluffs, you have to make it two feet across a small fissure to reach the Doorway. It seemed benign until we saw the sign indicating that people had died trying to cross it and the liability was all on us. I walked up to that fissure and paused. Others went ahead and started taking pictures on their digital cameras at the Doorway. I went a few paces left and looked over the bluffs, down two hundred, three hundred feet into the dense woods below and the wide lake beyond. As I came closer to the edge I slowed down. The edge attracted me with an unspoken magnetism. My curiosity grew. What was over that edge? Where did it come from? Who does it know here?
Even as the edge drew me closer, something in me recoiled, repulsed by the draw, afraid of what dangers these bluffs hold and eager to stay far, far away in the safe territory. People had died here. The fall could take me too. Polar forces of attraction and repulsion, wanting to come nearer and stay further, left me unsure how to move. I looked over to my group, having fun on the other side of the rock fissure, taking photos at Devil’s Doorway. They laughed and pretended to push one another. Carefree. I crawled backward from my squat position and stood, determined to join my friends. But as I got closer to the fissure my knees bent and I crouched down again, like a reflex built into my legs had activated. I backed up again and stood to try another time but I could not do it. I realized after a minute that I wouldn’t get a picture taken at Devil’s Doorway. I would have to save the sight in my memory, standing from here. I took a long look.
“For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Bro. Jeremy now came closer to what in any reasonable sermon would have been the conclusion. An altar call was imminent. As he pressed into Paul’s Gospel, my eyes focused somewhere else. Noah shifted his body weight in his chair, gentle as a breeze might ease a yellow tulip into another posture. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” Noah looked up and caught my eye. I looked down.