The following post appeared Friday, July 16th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.
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I love camp. I love being surrounded by more trees than buildings. I love singing Grace to John Williams’ theme from Superman. I love seeing the half-exhausted, half-excited faces of the campers at breakfast. And I love conversing with children and teenagers because every once in a while they will say something unexpected and profound amidst all the buzzwords and canned phrases that they know will be considered “correct” answers during afternoon Bible studies. Invariably, the profundity of their unexpected contributions comes in the form of the simplest, most direct response to a question.
Here’s why this practice is so profound. Over the years, we adults learn to hedge, to inject some wiggle room into everything we say in order to maintain some deniability later on. We prevaricate, deflect, and obfuscate because we’ve learned from the incessant 24-hour news cycle that a juicy sound byte can tank a career. We’ve learned that a verbal defense mechanism is a necessity for survival.
And with our deniability glands working at full capacity, we say, “Well, that’s not exactly what I meant,” or “I’m not sure you heard me correctly” (when, of course, I purposefully didn’t say exactly what I mean). But the problem with speaking equivocally creeps in over time: prevarication erodes the truth that has been in each of us since God knew us in our mothers’ wombs. When we hedge, we atrophy the muscles that store the truth, and we cut ourselves off from bits of the truth that is within us.
Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t monitor our words to make sure we always speak hospitably and graciously. Hedging is simply a cheap and ultimately ineffective way to achieve what hospitality and grace achieve naturally – namely, speaking in a way that keeps conversation open and kind. Hedging achieves this end by leading us to speak obscurely so that no meaning can quite be pinned down. Hospitality achieves the same end by leading us to speak truth uncoupled from judgment. One of the epic failures of our time is the withering of this graceful truth when we bury it under our own insecurity and our need to conform to society’s agreed upon level of appropriate vagueness.
Okay, let me get back to why I love camp. I love camp because for a week I get to ascend into the clean and invigorating air of youthful wisdom. The young people just haven’t lived long enough to acquire toxic levels of prevarication. They say all the things that were the first to erode in us adults. God will always be with me. You are my friend. Jesus is awesome. And after a few days of rubbing elbows with the young people, I remember the need to nourish the root system within myself that keeps the truth from eroding.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to preach until Tuesday. I had enough time to drink in the campers’ wisdom, so that when it came time for me to speak I was in less danger of hedging and wiggling. (This was a good thing, too, because children can spot phony commitment a mile away.) I had five minutes to talk about Moses and Aaron, and I had played with several ways to approach the story as I thought about speaking to the campers. When I stood up to speak, I knew my direction of travel, but I was unsure where I would end up.
I began to talk about how Moses was making excuses to God, about how he’s no good at public speaking, about how God might as well get someone else. I looked out at the campers, and then I told them to look at each other. Just then, I realized where the direction of travel was taking me. “God gave everyone special gifts,” I said. “A few of those gifts are within us, but most gifts come wrapped in the people around us. Just because we aren’t good at something doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. It just means we have an opportunity to invite a friend to help us.” These words rang true as I said them, but I didn’t feel them within myself before speaking them. I felt like I was absorbing these words from the young people staring up at me. What a gift.
Of course, as usually happens, I spoke the words aloud, but I’m probably the one who benefited from them more than anyone else. I needed the injection of youthful wisdom to find that truth again, the fundamental truth that I forget more than any other. I am not alone. I am with God. And I am with other people. We are God’s gifts to each other. This is the truth, and it leads to another true statement.
I love camp.