Ordinary things made holy by the children at Camp McDowell
It doesn’t happen often. A moment, or in this case, a stretch of time, when it seems that all the different strands of life have woven together into something seamless, sturdy, ever-so-real, and also of transcendent beauty and joy.
If you’ve read my blog with any regularity in the past few weeks, you’ve probably had some sense that this was a hard summer, with the departure of the rector of Ascension, the uncanny number of deaths in the parish. At one point a couple of weeks ago, death got mixed up with the kind of messy church politics that are inevitable, and really human, and sometimes painful and confusing. I’m now seasoned enough to know when to refuse to allow myself to take it in the least bit personally so very quickly, the questions resolved themselves and life went on. But that happened in the midst of the grief of euthanizing my sweet cat Dot, and as I was taking time to visit with a gentle man who’d been released from the hospital with hospice care, who was struggling mightily with fear and desolation as he slowly walked that lonely path of dying. It happened on the day a very dear friend and remarkable priest of the church, Stefani Schatz, died as well. On the very next day, I had another funeral to do. That was a lot, and then, my duties at Ascension were done for long enough to get in my car to go be program director and chaplain for Bethany’s Kids, the inclusion summer camp program I wrote about in my previous blog.
I had started to plan and prepare for the session with a small group of women a few weeks ago. All of them were either trained, or knew a lot about the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. One has a daughter with some special needs. Somehow, we all clicked and though I had the responsibility for coming up with an overarching theme, what came together was so much better than anything I could have done by myself. Our theme was “refreshed by living waters”—a 5 day exploration into the holiness of water. That thing that happens when a team clicks and its members call out the best, most creative selves in each other? That happened and though we were all probably more than a little apprehensive about what we’d prepared and whether or not it would work with the very broad range of needs, abilities and maturity levels of our camper peeps, the plan worked remarkably well.
Then, the week began, and the team grew to include a set of college students who are working as core staff members at Camp McDowell this summer. I get so disillusioned so often, that when a bunch of young people blow me out of the water with their kind competence, their sense of humor, their beauty and the faith-driven commitment with which they work, I just want to stop and stare.
I was acutely conscious of the responsibility I had to help us all see through the lense of faith, hope, charity and love—in other words, I knew I was there as a priest. In a post I left on this blog several years ago, I shared a portion of the sermon my friend Michael preached at my ordination to the priesthood, as he switched back and forth between English and Spanish, as he and I had done throughout our friendship. This is part of what he said:
Ahora entras en el sacerdocio, donde lo que Dios pide de ti es una confianza sobrehumana: la capacidad de alzar tus manos, levantando las plegarias de un pueblo y distribuyendo el consuelo y la bendición de Dios por medio de los sacramentos. Creerás de un momento a otro, que no eres digna, que hay algo impuro en este atrevimiento. Pero ya el serafín, si te atreves a creerlo, te ha limpiado en el brasero de tu vida. Cree, a la vez, que lo que has sufrido te ha simplificado y abierto y es, con paciencia y humildad, el tesoro que depositas en el templo.
Now you enter the priesthood where, what God asks of you is a superhuman confidence: the capacity to raise your hands, to hold up the prayers of a people and offer the consolation and the blessing of God through the sacraments. You will believe from one moment to the next that you are not worthy, that there is something impure in such audacity. But dare to believe that the seraphim has already cleansed you in the crucible of your life. Believe that what you have suffered has simplified and opened you, that this is the treasure, which, with patience and humility, you will bring as a gift to the temple.
I have never understood those words like I did at Camp McDowell. I drew on everything I have—my education, my life, my parenting of a special needs daughter, the things I’ve learned about work and friendship, and beauty, and liturgy—to do the work of the week. There was a sureness in my work, and the work we were all doing together, that was possible because in the words of the woman who runs this program, it had required “we plan tight and hang loose” once the week began.
On Friday night, when all there was left was one more morning, we gathered for our evening worship. That day, we had talked about baptism, about the ways in which we are washed clean, given new hearts throughout our life. Allie, the young woman in charge of the music for the week, who is studying to be a biochemist, chose the closing piece, a song I’d never heard of. It’s called “I Will Change Your Name”.
Allie’s clear voice melded with the voices of many in the space who also knew the song. Who was priest and who was being ministered to blurred in that moment. The words come as close as any I’ve ever heard to describe what being a part of the Episcopal Church has done and been for me.
This is not to deny the failures, the disappointments or the very real brokenness of the church. And still, God’s grace runs like a clear and clean river of life, enough to have changed at least one person’s name. AMDG