I always seem to reminisce on the last days of the calendar year. Not only about the previous twelve months, but back through the decades, across miles of memories and moments of delight and despair. And all the times between those polar opposites.
I’m recalling my first place of ministry, where I began as a young preacher in training to become an ordained clergyman. The location was a little town in southern Ohio named Rainsboro, after its founder, Aaron Rains. The little Methodist Church there had been served by student pastors for a century, and the congregation had learned patience and forgiveness as cleric after cleric would blunder and fail. And then be lifted up by an understanding group of believers who saw as their mission the nurturing and mentoring of the novices who came to serve them. I learned a lot about humility there in that welcoming and tolerant setting.
I got to know the young people of the village. For some reason they were attracted to me, maybe because I was single and fresh out of the Marine Corps. Or perhaps they were responding to my sincere desire to learn about their lives and to help them see that I was there to help and to represent a God who loved them. It took a while to gain their trust, but it happened sooner than I expected it.
Some of them lived in town; others lived out in the country. A good number came from the area along Rocky Fork Creek, a few miles south of the only intersection in Rainsboro. Along the creek, and lining the road from the water to the church, were steep embankments that the kids called “cliffs,” and as they made the journey, their imaginations conjured up frightful creatures they dubbed “cliff apes.”
The boys would describe in lurid detail what the monsters looked and acted like, and how these beasts would threaten any passers-by who dared to approach their hellish domain. They would paint gruesome portraits of the ravages and carnage that these phantoms would inflict on local farmers and their families, and since the horrid scenes of Vietnam combat were fresh in my mind, I was easily swept into the harrowing narratives of violence. Of course it didn’t take me long to separate fantasy from reality, but the images haunted me and drove me to ask why there was so much angst in these adolescent minds.
One evening while I was meeting with the young men on the front porch of my parsonage, one of them asked for a favor. I normally tried to accommodate such pleas for help, but this one stunned me. And I had to say “No.” To have acquiesced would have put me at risk and jeopardized my standing in the community, perhaps bringing an end to my emergent pastorate.
The effects of this perceived rejection would linger for a while, and it took some time to mend the relationships. But I don’t regret having to refuse that entreaty. That episode lingers in the shallows of memory’s ocean, but part of it embedded itself deep in my psyche, and it remains to this day. It was the immediate response to my “tough love” approach that night. One of the leaders nicknamed “Ground Hog,” in a tone of voice that was a dark amalgam of irony and cynicism, said, “Well, if a man of the cloth turns you down, there’s no place to go but the cliff apes.”
Strange how that has stayed with me. And how often I’ve wondered what happened to those boys who, if they survived, are now in their sixties. Did going back to the cliff apes mean a return to the fear and futility of their childhood? It might have dispatched them back to a life of helplessness that had ensnared their bloodline for generations. It might have led some on a path of self-destruction. I’ll never know.
I often think of others who have been turned away by the church, when their demands and expectations were reasonable and when they were not. Where do they go? What’s the alternative to a life of faith and hope? When they feel rejected by the Christian family or any other faith community, how many of them return to a life of primal fear that they try to mask with alcohol or another addiction?
I pray for those youngsters, and I also lift to God my concern for the millions of others who live in terror over monsters both real and imagined. The dark environment of our political and social world these days has driven many into valleys of dread, where the fiends and ghouls howl and the devils rule. Let us keep a light shining, so they find their way out of the shadows, past the cliff apes, and into the embrace of a Higher Power at whose voice even the demons of Hell once had to flee.