“If Jesus can heal the paralyzed man, why is anybody ever paralyzed?” That was the question I heard the first Wednesday of last session. Our devotional reading was Matthew 9:1-8. The question was specific to the biblical story, but the underlying thought is one that creeps into our hearts, especially at the teenage years; “If God is loving, why do bad things happen?” It’s a valid question, isn’t it? It’s not your typical Sunday School question, but it’s one worth dealing with. It’s one I try to answer myself, and one that I help campers work through time and time again. Sometimes it’s a young man who has struggled through this last school year, sometimes it’s a camper who made bad decisions and is now working through the mess that follows, and sometimes it’s a camper who seemingly had everything going right only to have everything crash down on him. The stories are different, but the questions are the same – Why? and What now?
The story of Joseph in the Bible is a story I find fascinating. Talk about a young man who had everything going for him! He was from a large, wealthy family. He had a bright future, was well loved by his father, and even had prophetic dreams of his future greatness. Of course all of that came crashing down on him when he visited his brothers who were tending sheep. Their jealously caused them to sell Joseph into slavery and to be taken away to the foreign land of Egypt. There, Joseph was raised in captivity under a master named Potiphar. Joseph worked faithfully for Potiphar regaining some status only to have Potiphar’s wife lie about him. Based on these lies, Joseph was wrongfully imprisoned. While in prison, however, instead of being bitter, Joseph helped those around him in prison, even helping one wrongfully imprisoned man regain his status in Pharaoh’s court. When Joseph himself earned a high place in Pharaoh’s court, he worked tirelessly for seven years to store food so that the government could give it all away during the upcoming 7 year famine. At the end of the story, Joseph’s brothers came before him needing help, and Joseph had the choice – get revenge or give forgiveness. In an act that changed his family forever, and all of the Israelites for generations to come, Joseph forgave and provided for the very brothers who caused his path of pain and loss. Not only is it an amazing story of forgiveness, but it is a story of Joseph opening his arms to everyone around him when he had every reason to be focused only on himself.
There is a young man I have gotten to know over the past few summers who reminds of me of a modern day Joseph. His name is Ben. Ben has been a Poplar for the past 3 years. Over these years, he has changed from a tiny, smiling, little 12-year-old into a tall, smiling, young man. Ben’s story is as complex and beautiful as any I have heard. I asked him if I could share some of it with you, and he graciously agreed. You see, Ben’s father passed away this last year. He had been fighting a battle for a while that I wasn’t even aware of. Ben had lived in the battle and fought for his father, but this last year, the fight ended for his father. Ben and I live in the same city, and I have multiple friends that teach at Ben’s school. I heard the news first from them. I knew I wanted to help Ben in someway, to reach out, but I didn’t know how. I knew he was back at camp this summer, and I began praying that somehow being here would help him. What I didn’t realize was how much Ben would help me.
Ben came to camp a day early. A few directors at camp, Ben, and his family all met and had a small memorial service for his dad. Ben’s dad was a long time Rockmonter himself. I didn’t know his dad from camp, but had met him a few times over the years. Dan shared some memories of Ben’s dad, and also some words of comfort and advice. He told Ben to grieve well, but to keep walking. He encouraged Ben to let his story drive him to understand others and to open his arms wide to others. After the service, I sat and thought about those words. Let your own story, the valleys and the mountains, drive you to understand others. It’s easy to say, but I wondered how it would look in action. I was amazed as Ben showed me just that.
I watched Ben closely this session and was able to have some great conversations with him about his dad, about his friends here and at home, and what I learned of Ben was inspiring. Ben has every right to question Why, and he does so well. There is genuine pain and loss, but that is not what characterizes Ben, because he doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t let his circumstances limit him, instead he lets his story embolden him. I watched Ben embrace other campers who were dealing with hard times at home and even deaths in their own families. His experiences allowed him to understand them, to love them. In conversation with Ben, he talked about learning from his dad’s story the importance for guys to walk with each other and to hold each other accountable, and that is exactly what Ben did for his cabin mates. Ben took his pain and grieved, and probably will continue to grieve in different ways through the future, but he did not run from it. No, Ben accepted it as his story. By accepting his own story, he made room for others’ stories. And isn’t that the way of the Gospel? We are called to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth, the city on the hill. But how can we be light if we are running from ourselves? Maybe part of being the light is understanding our own darkness, our own mistakes, our own story, and in doing so, we not only more clearly understand God’s love for us, but we can more clearly understand others.
So in hard times, how do you answer these questions? First, why? I don’t know that we will always know why. Our world is broken. But God is a God of reconciliation. He is a God of healing. And the answer to the second question is what Ben showed me this summer. What now? Now we walk. We walk with each other, we walk with our arms wide open, we walk knowing more about ourselves, experiencing more of our own story and knowing that our story can help us love others well, if we let it. We don’t run from our own pain, but we don’t have to face it alone. We either let our story embitter us or embolden us. Words are easy, but actions are much harder. Thank you campers, especially Ben, for showing me what those words actually mean.
Mountain Camp Director (Cabins 27-44)
Tonight’s Scripture: Mark 6:30-44
Story: Jesus Feeds the 5,000
+ Where do you see yourself in the story?
+ What’s the good news?