The Most Dangerous Animal in the Woods

Greetings from Franklin, North Carolina! I have a bit of catching up to do, but our first day after Neel Gap was so eventful that it deserves it’s own posting.

Day 6: 11.5 miles to Low Gap Shelter. After shipping a box home with about 4 pounds of (sort of) unnecessary supplies, I set out on the longest day of my hike so far. As though I hadn’t already confirmed my night owl sleep schedule, I strolled into camp close to nightfall yet again to join Michael and Leah and found quite a crowd at the shelter. Several thru and long distance section hikers were camping in the area, and a church group out for the weekend, about half of whom were related to one another, had the shelter and several tents.

After the long day, I was ready to make a hot dinner, have a friendly (and short) conversation with our fellow campers, treat my blisters, and promptly head to bed. Indeed that seemed to be the way the evening was going. We went through the usual hiker chat. Where are you from? How long are you hiking? Where did you come from this morning? How do you like your Jetboil (or hammock or Baselayers or any other aspect of your gear)? Then the golden question came up: what are you studying? I usually answer this with a strong “Religion and Conflict Resolution,” followed by “it’s a theology degree” when people are interested. I find this is a good way to let people talk about faith at a level they are comfortable with without alienating people too early into knowing them. Luckily, this church group was more than willing to remind me I was back in Georgia with the next sequence of questions. “So what is your religion?” -Well I’m United Methodist but I work with students from many faith backgrounds. “What do Methodists believe?” -Um we still aren’t sure sometimes. Do you have all night? Methodists tend to have a pretty traditional Trinitarian theology and we believe pretty strongly in grace and human free will. “What do you believe about Jesus Christ?!” Oh Lord…

I should probably take a moment here to tell you that Michael and Leah are Jewish. Not that this group had gotten to know us well enough to discover that. And though I answered their questions about my religious beliefs (in a way and with language they would understand and appreciate), the interview wasn’t even close to finished.

After I finished answering my inquisition, a young guy from the group asked if he could share his testimony with us. Naturally, we weren’t going to be rude to him, and M&L were genuinely curious about what he had to say. What came next had nothing, I repeat, nothing at all to do with his personal faith journey or life experiences. Instead he chose a willing participant for an activity that would demonstrate his point: Leah volunteered. First there were riddles. “Spell silk. Ok, now what do cows drink?” And so on. Psychologically, it puts him in the role of “the guy with all the answers” and makes his volunteer self conscious about their answers. Then he switched gears, asking her if she thinks she is a good person. “Oh, you do. Have you heard of the Ten Commandments?” Then he proceeded to go through each commandment, asking her if she had followed it, and then attempted to use other scriptural texts (usually from the New Testament) to demonstrate that she had failed to keep them and therefore was going to hell without saying the sinner’s prayer and letting Jesus create a new heart in her. After all, salvation through the blood of Jesus on the cross is like a debt paid to a judge, settling our account so we can be saved. Yep.

I listened in polite silence for quite a while, thinking “Tonight?! Really?! I’m too tired to play nice right now.” What came next can only be described as an evangelical ass whoopin. For those who know the characters involved, I channeled a fusion of the wrath of Kathy Darr and Dave White’s road rage (ask him about that time in Fisherville).

“So let me ask you a quick question: when Jesus gave you a new heart, did you stop eating pork? You are hiking so I’m guessing that you are wearing a polyester blend. 600+ commandments in the Hebrew Bible and Jesus focused on loving God and neighbor as you love yourself right? Have you considered that maybe humans have created this Judge God in their own image, in legalistic terms that we understand, because Gods love is far more infinite than we can comprehend? And did everyone living before Jesus go to hell? And if God is good, why does God put all these folks in hell? But if God wants to be united with us all and reconciled, does God get what God wants? And if God is all powerful, shouldn’t God get what God wants? So does God create certain people knowing that they won’t be saved and go to hell? And does that mean than God causes suffering? So is God capable of evil? Have you considered that the way you just treated my friend might not be the best demonstration of Jesus’s acceptable, love, and mercy and that what your evangelistic strategy here is spreading might not actually be “Good News?” Oh, did I mention I’m in seminary?” … As a brief sampler. Michael also gave some thoughtful reflections on using this strategy on people who are unfamiliar with your sacred texts and thoughts on the after life, say anyone from a culture other than yours.

Finally we had an opportunity to escape and we took it, wishing them a good night. There are bears, snakes, and venomous spiders, and that night is the closest I ever hung my hammock to Michael and Leah’s tent.

Day 7: 13.4 miles to Cheese Factory Site. Yes, there used to be a cheese factory there. Unfortunately, there isn’t a Cheesecake Factory there now. Given our experience with the evangelicals, we decided to push past them and try for an even longer hike.

As a bonus, we met Danny and Dave (two medical residents and childhood best friends out for a week of hiking) that morning and added them to our party. They had overheard our conversation the night before and, being Jewish as well, decided not to join in. Let’s just put it this way: last time someone went into the wilderness with this many Jews, they had to stay gone for 40 years.

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