A memory from years ago resurfaced this week as I was working on my sermon.
I was working at a camp in Pennsylvania for the summer as a counselor in 1997. The way this particular camp functioned was that us counselors would wait at our cabins when the campers arrived. They would register at a different building, their parents would say their goodbyes, and then the kids would come find their cabin and the parents would go home.
This particular week, I was waiting at the cabin for my campers to arrive, and a kid walked up, and he almost seemed lost. He looked like a normal 8-10 year old boy, but while the other kids were cave-manning around in the woods burning off their energy, he just kind of stood there watching, taking it all in.
I thought he was just a little shy (a feeling I can relate to), so I went out to meet him and make sure he was at the right place. We were outside, in the woods, and the smell coming off him hit me like a wall. He wasn’t necessarily shy, or even introverted.
He was baked. Stoned. High.
Whatever you want to call it, this kid and his belongings were absolutely marinated in the second-hand fumes of mary-jane.
There was an enormous beetle on his backpack. I tried to brush it off but it just sluggishly changed positions. It was like even the beetle was high.
I was never the brightest bulb in the basket; but even the 17 year old me knew at this point that this kid was at a pretty severe disadvantage; not just for the week of camp, but for the rest of his life.
Not because of any choices he had made…but rather because of the environment he must have been growing up in.
I never met the parents, or the guardians of this kid, but I could tell they had broken him, and he never had a choice in the matter. They had made lots of decisions for him without even knowing it. He was going to have a lifetime of trying to overcome the obstacles that had been placed in his way.
I haven’t thought about this experience, or this kid, for years. The fact that he was high on second-hand marijuana smoke didn’t change how I treated him. If anything, I made the decision right then that I was going to try to give him the best, most normal, week of life that he had ever had.
I had the best intentions.
A couple days later, the camp administration had scheduled a ‘creek walk’ (where you wade in a creek for maybe half a mile looking for crayfish or whatever). (It’s basically an excuse to play in the creek).
I grew up in Iowa, and I had counseled at a camp in Iowa, where the ‘creek’ was a shallow, slow-moving, murky body of water, with a bottom of thick, soft mud that swallowed your feet with each step you took. So when I heard we were going to do a creek walk, that’s the experience I had in mind.
Most of the kids were prepared for the week of camp. Most brought two pairs of shoes; one that could get wet, and one that would stay dry. Obviously this kid only had one pair of shoes. So when the leadership ‘strongly advised’ that we all wear shoes for this creek walk, this presented a problem.
I convinced this poor kid that the shoes were optional. I told him how much fun it would be to feel the mud between his toes. I told him the shoes were just for the people who didn’t want to get dirty. I told him I’d go barefoot with him, and that we’d be able to laugh at all the people who had to dry out their shoes then before they went home.
We’d be the tough guys, I told him. I sold him on the adventure, saying we’d earn some bragging rights by doing this barefoot.
Boy was I wrong.
Creeks are completely different in Pennsylvania than they are in Iowa. The water was swift and clear and incredibly cold. It wasn’t very muddy, because the bottom of this creek was covered in all manner of stones. Big, slippery ones that posed a danger for twisted ankles and knees and little ones that might as well have been broken glass, for that’s what they felt like.
Every step hurt, because I wasn’t wearing any shoes. My feet hurt. My pride was hurt. And my soul hurt even more, because I led this kid like a lamb to the slaughter. I just gave him more proof that adults could not be trusted to take care of him in the way he should be taken care of.
It didn’t take him long to start crying in the creek. He cried, and in between his tears, he’d yell at me in anger. And he had every right to be angry.
We made it through, after me and another counselor carried him on our backs the rest of the way…but our relationship was damaged. I apologized, I explained myself, I made excuses, I apologized more…but in the end there was nothing I could do.
He trusted me, and I led him wrong. He was hurting because I had very literally broken his trust, and it didn’t matter how much I apologized or how good my intentions were. I screwed up.
So I asked him for forgiveness.
He had never heard of that before.
And it wasn’t until I was writing my sermon this week that I actually started to see what a genius thing forgiveness really is.
Here we were; an 18 year old guy who’s had every opportunity and every resource at his fingertips for most of his life. I was a fairly well adjusted, young white male heading to college that fall… and I had wounded an 8 year old boy who by that time had already faced more challenges than I ever had.
The power dynamics couldn’t have been more unbalanced. Yet when I asked forgiveness, he gained two important things. He gained a voice, and he gained a choice.
God help us when we take either of those things for granted.
These are two important qualities for any life. There are few things more demoralizing than feeling like your voice isn’t heard, or that you have no choice in a matter (like a child soaking in marijuana because of the choices their caregivers are making).
When relationships are broken, it seems like choice and voice (or the lack thereof) have a lot to do with the breaking. So the beauty of forgiveness is at least partly to be found in the restoration of choice, and of voice.
This leads to reconciliation, which Paul tell us in 2 Corinthians chapter 5 is the ministry that we have been given by God. It’s a divine mandate.
When I asked this child for forgiveness, a couple of important things happened. First, he heard an adult admit guilt. I know from my own experience this is not common. Secondly, he was empowered to take control over the situation. I’m guessing he had never really been given that kind of power before. Finally, in my asking him for forgiveness, it was clear that how he responded was important to me. His voice was important to me, even though I made it clear that I was going to move on with my life.
I explained forgiveness like this to him. I told him it was like I had given him a rock, even though I didn’t mean to. And then I told him that I couldn’t take it back, even though I wanted to, but that the rock belonged to him now. He had a choice as to what to do with that rock. He could keep it and carry it around, but it would probably get heavy after awhile. Or he could throw it at me, and try to hurt me as much as I hurt him. (I’m glad he didn’t choose that option).
Or, I told him, he could choose to just put the rock down and let it lie. It’s not that the rock isn’t important. It’s not that we don’t learn from what happened. It’s not that he doesn’t have the right to be upset…rather, forgiveness is like saying the relationship between us is more important than the rock between us.
I don’t know if anything I said sunk in. I don’t really remember the rest of the week, and obviously I haven’t heard from him since (I don’t even remember his name).
But what I do know is that I made every effort to reconcile. At the end of the day that’s all any of us can do. It must be worth it; after all, I’m still learning lessons from that experience some 16 years after the fact.
How about you? What stones might you let drop this week? It’s tempting to hold on to them. It’s tempting to nurse our wounds and hold onto our grudges.
But that’s not our calling. Be reconciled to God; and also to each other.