Junior High youth have always been my favorite; they live the mantra "real knows real" and their threshold for zaniness is considerable. I trace the roots of my own vocation as a priest back to the Junior High Sunday School class that took me as their teacher when I was a sophomore in college. We had far more fun than was reasonable. I never looked back.
I used to tell people that Junior High youth and I got along so well because our maturity levels were evenly matched. However, as my wife and I began to pack for this week at camp - loading up car seats and and play pens and diapers by the box load - I quickly realized the delusive nature of my affinity for Junior High youth: the two of us are no longer the even match I had imagined (if we ever were). No, I am undeniably a thirty-something husband with a family of four.
That's to say I didn't quite know what to expect this go-around at camp. And it is a strange thing to feel nervous about a setting that in years gone by has felt so much like home.
As near as I can tell, all of this is why I found myself so overcome by emotion as I carried my worn-out daughter over my shoulder as we made our way from the activity center to the river cottage last night. (Annie is two years old; shell'll be three in August. It is her very first time at Camp Capers.) I had just spent the better part of the day watching Annie flourish as an adopted, honorary member of every girl's cabin she encountered.
During the morning's teaching time, I approached one group of girls that had befriended my daughter; I asked why they appeared so quiet. "We're listening to Annie," came the answer. "She's telling us a story."
Later that day, I spotted Annie lying on her belly, propped up on her elbows, adding her illustration to a cabin's graffiti wall. At other times I found her sitting in her favorite counselor's lap and then dancing with new friends.
As we walked across the field - she and I - at the end of the day last night, I whispered in Annie's ear, "I love you, Annie. And I am so thankful to be your daddy."
In the early morning hours after Annie and (I hope) the campers were all in bed, I found myself reflecting: this week Patrick, Erin, and I have been teaching these youth that God has hopes for them. These hopes include walking with them and filling them with the good gifts of hope, joy, peace, and love - the work of the Holy Spirit in them and for others.
I think you and I do well to remember that this desire in God for them is not just a future hope but is also the present reality God is already working in and through them now, these amazing and zany Junior High friends. The fruit of hope, joy, peace, and love not distant or abstracted notions to them, but present realities by which they are already bearing witness to the love of Jesus for them and in them and through them.
I know you know this already: your children are amazing.
Just ask Annie. And her very grateful Daddy.