Friday, July 27, 2012

Two Small Stones.


The day is slowly ending, sun sinking behind the tops of the trees to the west, and I’m crouched over a fire-pit ringed by slabs of stone. A crude pyramid of dryer lint, twisted paper towels, dry sticks, and cut wood takes hold of the flame that I place in its center, smoke and fire swiftly twisting upward. It crackles, thrumming and popping as a dry heat amidst the already thick humidity. Sweat slicks my cheekbones and forehead and my t-shirt clings to me as I shift place, inserting new twigs here and there. My small blaze tries its best to echo the streaming globe of fire descending behind the trees, and as I watch eight counselors move into place around the lake, I can’t help but be aware of the different sources of light that dapple us all. 
Without fail, Thursday night’s lakeside service at Camp Chestnut Ridge makes me nervous. It’s what every week builds toward, history, song, story, and Mystery fusing together in a crucible ringed by wooden benches, old trees, and lake water. When I’m the chaplain who leads this service, I’m acutely aware that although we’ve sought to share the love of Jesus throughout the rest of the week, this is the night when the Gospel and campers meet. Firelight moves across their faces as we explore Incarnation, sacrifice, the cross, and resurrection, and even though I know that any heart-work is truly being done by the Holy Spirit, I can’t help but feel pressure. It’s entirely self-formed and self-sustaining, this underlying anxiety, internal worries about ensuring all-age accessibility for the message while trying desperately to avoid both heresy and saccharine. I only hear encouragement from other staff members, but this small ball of concern always roils in my gut: “Don’t screw this up, Baker… this could be the first time these kids are actually hearing the Gospel as available to them. Seriously… that’s what you’re going to talk about? That’s your analogy for salvation and forgiveness?  Sheesh.”
Thankfully, a still, small voice perpetually hushes this internal thrashing. A cascading movement of frog-song overwhelms any voices of worry within me. I watch campers walk around the lake in small groups, stopping at each of the costumed counselors as their stories are shared – Francis of Assisi, the Apostle Paul, Adam and Eve, and two unnamed Israelites offer tales of trusting the Lord, knowing Jesus, encouraging the Church, and the Lord at work in Creation. Silence falls as campers settle onto the wooden benches, their eyes drawn to the flames of the fire. 
There’s a “Please, dear Jesus” and I’m in, mouth burbling with story like a river whose source was never me to begin with. The campers each hold two small stones, hands tracing the curves as I share about story and memory bound up in dusty Ebenezers in the desert, places of Presence and communal Israelite thanksgiving. They are reminded of God’s story as primary, their own stories eddies in His waves even as the Lord delights over each of them, knowing their names and faces and families and pain and hope and questions and sorrows. The campers file by the cross at the lake’s edge, one hand resting on its sun-warmed wood as the other casts one of the stones (a symbol of that which saddens, burdens, or overwhelms them) into the depths of the lake (a symbol of the love of God which flows from the cross). The other stone is placed into pockets or packs, with the hope being that it might serve as a small Ebenezer of memory in the days, weeks, and months to come.  Counselors and campers cluster, praying for one another as the fire dies down, embers snapping periodically in the night.
This was never about me, whether or not my preaching was up to par with some self-imposed standard, or whether or not I could “make” something happen through my message. Instead, as Richard Rohr has said, “God is already present. God's Spirit is dwelling within you. You cannot search what you already have. You cannot talk God into 'coming' into you by longer and more urgent prayers. All you can do is become quieter, smaller, and less filled with your own self and its flurry of ideas and feelings. Then God will be obvious in the very now of things.” Somehow, through the ripple of water, the buzz of insects, and the glow of the fire, the Lord moves. Jesus is known. The Presence of God is here, and worship spontaneously streams forth, songs on the lips of children.
And, in the darkness, I cannot help but grin at the goodness of the Lord.

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