While I have been a father for only eleven years now, I have acted in "parental" capacities for a much longer period of time. Nearly twenty-five years ago I began to work in congregations as a youth pastor, so even in my early twenty's I found myself in roles that required responsibility and parent-like concern. From the beginning I have loved my work with youth and children, and it continues to remain a significant part of my personal and pastoral journey to this day.
One of the best parts of my pastoral work with children and youth is the opportunity to observe changes and development over the course of weeks, months and years. It is more difficult to see those changes in children when you are their parent because of the constant, every-day-ness of the parental task, so I relish the opportunity to observe other peoples' children finding success, as it reminds me that my children are doing some of the same things. It's just difficult for me to see it as clearly.
Last week I had the opportunity to witness what a difference a year makes in the life of a kid. If you've read recent blogs you know that two of our United Methodist churches took our annual camp experience together last week. One of the young men (now aged 12) I met last year is from the other congregation, so I have not had the opportunity to see him for a year. Last year he was by all accounts the most "needy" camper. (This claim to fame has now been thoroughly challenges with the presence of four of my children this year, however). He has a behavioral diagnosis that requires medication, has experienced some difficult family times and appears at least two or three years younger than his chronological age. Last year he was the only camper not to pass his swimmer's pre-test (administered by the camp staff to ensure a camper is adept enough to swim in the lake), and he expressed anxiety about taking the test again this year. "I'm never going to pass the dumb swimmer's test. I might as well not even bother," he repeated several times. We adults around him continued to encourage him and eventually became more assertive in saying that it was required for him to do, whether he liked it or not.
So, he joined the other campers on the first day, and to his surprise passed. A smile filling his blond-headed face, he reported his good news to any who would listen. More than once. I was proud of him and especially touched to see how much this achievement meant to him.
By the second day he became aware of my early morning walk routine. [I like to walk at least three or four miles a day, and when I have the time I enjoy doing it early in the morning, which I had done on our first day at camp]. The night before he asked if he could join me on my walk, to which I replied, "I would be happy for you to walk with me, but it means that you're going to have to be calm tonight when it's lights out and not talk and bother other people. If you can do that, I'll wake you up at 6:30 when I'm ready to go." He agreed to my terms, even volunteering to take an evening shower in order to be ready first thing the following morning.
And, true to his word, he settled in quickly and quietly and slept soundly until my awakening call at 6:30 AM. I waited in the lounge area while he dressed, and we began our walk. Battling the early morning mosquitoes (a staple of Minnesota life) and deer flies, we traipsed through the dew-drenched grassy trail, pausing to hear the plaintive cry of the loons on the nearby lake. Our conversation was relaxed and enjoyable. We were both happy: I had a walk partner and he had two adult ears for his complete attention for nearly 30 minutes. His goal was to be back at the dock by 7:00, because one of our counselors had promised to bring her fishing gear out at 7:15 for any who wanted to try their hand at fishing before our 8:00 breakfast time. Wanting to ensure he had first access to one of the two poles, I assured him we would be back to the dock no later than 7:00 AM. He regaled me with previous fishing exploits, asserting that this morning he would be catching a "northren" (as he pronounced it). The night before those fishing had caught mostly sunfish and a (small) bass, so I was dubious as to whether there would be even a northern in the lake to catch. I tried to moderate his enthusiasm so he wouldn't be disappointed with the anticipated catch of smaller fish, but he continued to talk about the "huge northren" he would be catching that morning. As I've wisely learned over the years, there are sometimes when it's just better to be quiet and listen, so I did, as he prattled on and on with glee.
By 7:00 AM we were back, and he trotted off to the dock to await the fishing gear, while I found a seat on a swing chair that allowed me to see what was happening at the lakeside. I gently rocked myself in the chair while enjoying the coolness of the morning, felt the breezes wafting across my face and looked out over the gentle, undisturbed glassiness of the lake. In a few minutes a few other fishers showed up on the dock, and they cast their lines out as I continued in my reverie of solitude some distance from their activity.
In a few minutes I heard the excited voice of my young camper friend. "I've got one, I've got one. And it's a big one," I heard him shriek. As he pulled in the fish, I ambled down the path to the dock, just in time to see him reel in a big (for him) northern. As I congratulated him he said, "See, I told you I was going to catch a big northren. And I did!"
It was a classic moment of sheer joy. For him it was the joy of achieving what he anticipated, and for me it was the joy of surprise at his blessing, a gift from God to a kid who has faced his share of adversity in life. After he had his picture taken with the big fish (it was, in fact, half his body length, so while no records were set and no professional fisher would have been so happy, for my friend this was a lifetime achievement).
Walking back with him from breakfast an hour or so later, I said, "Wow. You've already had a great morning." "Yeah," he said. "I got to go for a hike with you and then I caught a huge northren." "How did that make you feel?" I asked, not anticipating the ferocity of his next statement.
"Well, Dean Bart, I used to think I was a worthless pile of crap, but now I know better."
"You do? What do you think now?"
"I think that if I don't give up I can do something right."
What a difference a year makes! And that, for me, is why I will continue to spend a few days each year with fourth, fifth and sixth grade kids in a summer church camp.