During the summer, I have the amazing privilege of working with several hundred children who spent time at a camp in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Now, before you add me to the roster of saints, you should know that this was a camp for rich kids and I am well paid. But it is a chance to be out in God’s creation, to contribute to the moral formation of the next generation of business people, lawyers, teachers… Last summer, I was a senior staff member, what is called a division director. As such, I had day-to-day responsibilities for about 70 little boys between the ages of six and eleven, along with twenty-four college and high-school students who worked as cabin counselors and instructors. In addition to our role as in loco parentis, substitute parents for the children in our care, we also played the role of disciplinarian. Now summer camp isn’t about discipline, its about fun, so we tried to be careful, to use an easy touch. No one wants to be the assistant principle! Anybody who wants that job probably shouldn’t have it. The story I’d like to tell you comes from one of those encounters, one of those moments when I was the bad guy.
Now, Jake wasn’t one of mine. He was an intermediate boy, a twelve year old with whom I had little interaction, and here it was, the night before a changeover. Changeovers happened every two weeks, when some several hundred of the campers would leave and new batch would join those who remained. Jake was one of those leaving. Now, I have to tell you, camp friendships are intense. You can spend more time with a friend in camp than you will another friend in school. This is especially true of your cabin mates. There are often a dozen boys sleeping in one room smaller than the bedrooms each of these boys have back home in their McMansions. So changeover is emotional. One custom the kids have developed over the years is to sign shirts for one another. But kids don’t just sign…
So there I am at flagpole, the glorious end of the day, and there is this boy with his signed white shirt. And boy is it signed. I don’t know who started it, whether it was Jake or a bunkmate, but this shirt was covered in profane, sexualized words and drawing. And he had it on in front of the whole camp, in front of the whole senior staff! I had to act. I pulled Jake out of the group, asked him to remove the shirt (he did have another underneath lest you think I ordered the child to strip!) and marched him up to the Cooler. The very name was ominous. The Cooler was the office of the camp owner/director. It was where serious issues went. And if you’d read this shirt, you’d have thought it pretty serious. Violent sexual images don’t belong on a twelve year old.
We never made it. Walkie-talkie traffic was jumping, things were busy. Jake’s shirt was not going to make it onto the radar of the camp director that night. So I turned the shirt in, and turned Jake loose. He was terrified. Was he going to be DNR’ed? At camp DNR means “Do Not Re-admit.” Even worse, was I going to tell his Mom when she picked him up the next day?
Now, this kid was bright, personable, good looking, but he didn’t know the ways of the world… he certainly should never have told me he didn’t want me to tell his Mom, because that became the very thing I planned to do. A mother who could inspire that sort of fear could certainly teach her son about appropriate language, especially given the attitude toward women seen on Jake’s shirt. But somehow, that’s not what happened. God happened instead, or the Holy Spirit to be exact, because I am convinced that I could never have done what came next.
I turned to Jake before he left and ask him one question. “Jake, is this the man you want to be?” His eyes filled with tears, he looked up at me, and quietly answered. “No.” And the words were put into my mouth again. “Jake, the man you want to be is already there. I know you don’t really know him yet, but he’s there. Let him out. Pretend like you are already him and you will be.”
The next morning at breakfast Jake approached me. “Do you know what is going to happen to me?” I didn’t. I told Jake that he might get a free pass, that things were busy, that the shirt was gone and the lesson learned. He thanked me, and we spoke once again about the man he wanted to be.
Several hours later as kids rolled out of camp, this boy who I barely knew came running up, threw himself around my waist, thanking me, telling me goodbye, promising to be the man he knew he could be, that he wanted to be.
My question for you is, are you the saint you want to be? That God calls you to be. See, that saint is in there. God is calling it out. The church is calling it out. I am calling it out. Like Lazarus called out from the tomb, new life and health from stink and decay. Like Samuel called out in the Tabernacle. Fear not. She is not really dead. The saint, buried though she may be, though he may be, is vital and alive, and waiting for you to call it by name. Saint Jake won’t be perfect, but he might just be. And may it ever be so. Amen.