Earlier this summer I spent a week watching a miracle unfold before my eyes. In fact, I participated in the unfolding. I want to tell you about it because I believe it offers a glimpse of what is possible when we take time to be actively present with and for the youth in our lives, and when we are intentional about paying attention to God’s presence.
I served as the chaplain for the seventh, eighth, and ninth grade church camp sponsored by my denomination (the Montana - Northern Wyoming Conference of the United Church of Christ). It was a relatively small-scale event, with 17 middle-school aged youth, six adult volunteers, and a handful of support staff.
From the moment we arrived something remarkable began to take shape. Community began to form. Old friendships were rekindled and new ones began to take shape. And over the course of the week it would become more and more apparent that something extraordinary was happening. The community that formed was more than just a random group of early adolescents who were thrown together for a week. There was a tangible sense that God’s spirit was actively at work in the midst of us, opening hearts and weaving connections.
By the time we said good-bye at the end of the week and headed back down the road to resume our “normal” lives it was obvious that none of us were the same people who had arrived at camp a week earlier. Like butterflies emerging from cocoons, our lives had been transformed. These amazing young people were learning to spread their wings and soar on the winds of spirit.
One of my jobs as chaplain for this camp was to help instill an awareness of the presence of God among us. Three of the primary ways I did this were by leading the morning watch devotional times just prior to breakfast, by helping to lead the singing at mealtimes, and assisting small groups of youth in planning and leading the vespers campfire worship each evening. It was such a privilege to work with these youth in these endeavors.
Each morning I shared a few brief thoughts about the spiritual theme for the day, offered them a handout with a poem on it, and sent them off to find a quiet spot to sit and reflect for a few minutes before the breakfast bell rang. Every single one of them responded by immersing themselves in the experience. One morning as I was watching them find their places scattered among the trees and settle in for their few moments of precious stillness I was deeply touched by the truly priceless gift I had been given of spending the week with them. A wave of incredible love and connection washed over me.
Early on in the week, I was leading the singing at lunch and we were singing one of the songs I had taught them the day before. Almost immediately I was struck by the powerful way they were singing with such amazing heart. That brief glimpse of spiritual community being formed right before my very eyes nearly took my breath away. We were singing a song by Libby Roderick that I chose to share with them because I believe the message it contains is absolutely vital for them to hear. “How can anyone ever tell you you are anything less than beautiful? How can anyone ever tell you you are less than whole? How can anyone fail to notice that your loving is a miracle? How deeply you’re connected to my soul!” And what I heard in that moment, as they sang with such heart, was that they got it -- way down deep in their bones they got it. That single moment made the whole week worthwhile.
The experience of working with them in the planning and leading of vespers gave me hope for the future of the church and the world. They listened patiently while I explained some of the basics of worship planning. They brought their whole selves to the process. They demonstrated a willingness to be open to new ideas and new experiences. They exhibited genuine creativity. And they stepped into leadership roles with poise, grace, and maturity.
In less than two hours each day they went from a few fragments of a theme to a fully fleshed out and creative worship experience which they then shared with the whole camp. They stood up in front of their peers and helped to guide them through a thoughtful and powerful experience of God’s presence, complete with songs, readings, dramatic presentations, and moments of group interaction. I know lots of adults with a lifetime of experience in the church who couldn’t do it any better.
There were, of course, other experiences as well. There was laughter. There were tears. There was hiking in the woods and getting caught out in the rain. There was time spent hanging out in the craft lodge creating small gifts to share with their secret pals. There was eating together and playing silly games together and learning to dance and drum and do archery. There was an adaptive staff who rolled with the last minute challenges, which always present themselves in such situations. And all of it, from the moments of obvious spiritual presence to the moments of quiet silliness, all of it blended together to mold us and shape us into a community where lives were touched and shaped and transformed by the ongoing presence of God.
We stood together on holy ground. And there we learned to risk sharing ourselves honestly and deeply, because it was safe to do so within the sacred community which was formed.
I spent that week watching a miracle unfold before my eyes. And I am grateful beyond measure for the privilege of being present to participate in its unfolding.