Like many of you, I have fond memories of Vacation Bible School. Whether it be the stale cookies, the missionary stories, or the prospect of being chosen to hold a flag during the pledges – VBS was always a great week. Unfortunately, though, amid all my pleasant recollections, I have one unpleasant memory as well. It is enduringly linked to VBS. As best I can remember, I’ve never told this story. So, here it is.
The church of my childhood was New Harmony Baptist Church. My father was the pastor, the staff, the secretary, and the janitor. The small, country church building housed an even smaller congregation – but they were Bible-believing, chicken-eating, Hee-Haw watching Baptists (which, coincidentally, are the best kind.)
The faux wood paneling in the sanctuary gave the building a soothing, cozy country feel. The obnoxiously red drapes, pew cushions and wall-to-wall shag carpet did just the opposite. In fact, New Harmony’s decor may be the reason those bulls keep running recklessly through the streets of Pamplona.
As you opened the heavy, wooden double doors and stepped onto the prickly, plastic-grass covered porch, a cemetery, larger than 3 football fields, stretched out long ways as far as the eye could see. It was large enough for the dead to be buried in, but not too large for boys to be boys in.
When our parents weren’t looking, the Turner and Scarlett boys would sneak off, after the evening service, into the graveyard. There we would chase fireflies, throw rocks at each other and play a spookier-than-usual game of hide-and-seek. As I hopped over headstones and hid quietly behind grave markers, my heart beating rapidly, I just knew that it was only a matter of time before bony, skeleton fingers would poke through the earth, pull me down and that I would never be heard from again. I would forever be remembered as “that preacher’s kid who got lost playing in the cemetery.” Future generations of children would be marched by their stern Sunday School teachers across the parking lot, stopping where gravel and grass meet, and retold my Ichabod Crane-like tale. The moral of my story would always the same: “Kids, this is why we don’t play in the church cemetery!” A mixture of curiosity and consternation would inevitably fill their little minds. As you can tell, graveyard hide-and-seek is absolutely terrifying when you’re six years old. But, I digress.
Alongside the endless cemetery was a winding road that was the only way in and the only way out to New Harmony Baptist Church. It was curvy and lined with trees, which appeared to be suffocating beneath gobs of kudzu. I still remember that road. I especially remember what happened on that road, one hot July day, after VBS.
The snack-time lemonade was gone. The glue from the macaroni crafts was drying in the fellowship hall. And the familiar pledges and songs were but a faint echo in the nearby woods. By now, my father was helping the people find their cars and helping the trash find the waste baskets. Soon, most were gone. There were only two parked vehicles remaining: ours and the McCaskills.
The McCaskills were a family; however, for our purposes, the McCaskills refer only to the teenage daughter, Paige and her younger brother, Kevin. She drove a rugged, blue heap of metal that some might mistake for a pickup truck. Kevin was friends with my older brother. As I recall, they were both about 11 years old.
My father locked the front door, that day, and we waved goodbye to the two McCaskills. They drove off, alongside the cemetery towards home. Soon after, we climbed into our tiny, rust-colored Datsun. I tried my best not to get third degree burns on my skinny, naked legs from the black plastic seats. Eventually, the outside breeze rushed through the windows as we drove down that same familiar road.
As we came around a sharp curve, we were confronted by an unexpected sight: an ominous plume of smoke and dust. My father slowed the car, squinted his eyes, and tried to make sense of this strange phenomenon. Exiting the gritty fog, our car approached the source. Like a Christmas present bow, the McCaskill’s blue pickup truck was wrapped around the trunk of a tree. It was a car wreck. Being just six years old, I had never seen one until now. We immediately stopped. The eerie sights and frantic sounds seared into my brain. To this day I can vividly remember the burning smell – a mixture of radiator fluid, smoke, twisted metal, and powdered earth.
My father rushed to the truck. Standing beside our open car doors, in the middle of the street, my brother and I were frozen. I had never seen such vehicular carnage before. I had never seen an unconscious person before. I had never seen so much blood before. To me, it looked and sounded like death. My hands got shaky and my stomach sick. I didn’t know if I should run or puke.
Crunching shards of glass beneath his feet, my dad approached the truck. He gently helped a bruised and dizzied Paige out. Peaking over to the passenger’s side, he saw Kevin’s twisted body – scrunched between the seat and dashboard which were now touching. He looked lifeless. Moments later, though, he woke. The woods were now filled with the piercing, echoing agony of an 11 year old. He screamed and cried. Eventually, an ambulance arrived. We all rushed to the hospital. We waited for news.
There were several bones broken and surgeries performed that day. Despite how awful it looked to my six year old eyes, both McCaskills recovered. I can’t say the same for their blue pickup truck. The impact, though, of that tragedy – the personal encounter with mortality– left an indelible mark on my little mind.
I realized, for the first time, that life was precious and that death was near – even for young boys like me. All the stories, from VBS, about Heaven and Hell came flooding back to my mind. It began to make sense. That experience weighed on me for months until I just had to have peace. I now knew what every human being eventually discovers: death is fearful. As Hebrews 2:15 tell us, men and women, “through fear of death, are subject to slavery all their lives.” Even as a child, I wanted to be free from that fear. Just a few months later, I placed my faith in the one and only Victor over death, King Jesus. And my fear was gone.
In the days to come, here at Forest Baptist Church, we will have scores of children at our VBS. Let’s hope that none of them encounter a tragedy like I did. Yet, let’s hope and pray that all of them do encounter the Conquerer of death and the Champion of life, like I did.