On the last Sunday in June I dropped my son off at Camp Glisson. Leaving Atlanta, I’d hoped for cooler, drier air in the mountains, but it was stubbornly hot and muggy, even north of Dahlonega. The thick woods did little to cool things off, and James and I sweated even after just one trip from the car to his cabin.
It was his first sleep-away camp experience, which concerned me a little. But what bothered me more was that I had registered him for the wrong program, the one his friend Sam was not registered for. I didn’t let on that I felt worried for him going into a cabin of 12 boys, many of whom were already paired up with buddies they’d known since they were little. But in so many ways, James is more mature than I am. Where did his social confidence come from? Certainly he didn’t inherit it from me or my husband.
I helped him make his bed, a top bunk over the counselor’s desk. He was wearing his "Free Hugs" t-shirt and what looked to me like some kind of 10-year-old’s game face. It's the face you put on when you’re girding yourself, when you don’t want to reveal any vulnerability. He sternly tucked in the corners of the fitted sheet and placed his pillow at one end. A kid across the cabin called over to James that he wanted a hug in a tone that sounded a bit derisive. James’s words were “Yeah, OK,” but his attitude was “you wanna piece of me?” I noticed another kid who also appeared to be alone and was taking solace in a book. I asked James if he wanted one of his books out of the car. “OK,” he said, “72-Story Tree House.”
After another sweaty walk out to the car, I returned with the book. James was sitting on a lower bunk with three other boys, including the hug requester, playing a game of cards. In minutes the boys had gone from being mildly contentious strangers to new friends. My heart swelled, but I kept my cool, trying not to embarrass anyone. I left the book on James’s bed and told him to have a good week without too much fanfare.
The whole drive home, Barbara Day Miller’s words played themselves in my mind. She had kicked off Glenn’s Summer Lecture Series a few weeks earlier with her talk "Prayers as a Part of Worship." There was a phrase she used that struck me as relevant to the way the boys had made friends: “the tiniest bit of something good.” She had had us close our eyes as she read Mark 4:26-34, the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Before beginning she had asked us to “see what you see, without question, without analysis, without trying to figure out what this means. Just see what you see and how that feels.”
Jesus also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once the sower goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come." Jesus also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds in the earth; and yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
It was a different experience –- hearing the verse read versus reading it myself. Barbara’s reading was lovely, her voice swaying with the language and pausing now and again to let our mental images form more fully. She asked what we saw as she read and showed us how the images and feelings hinted at more. An audience member said that the place was “sunny and cool.”
“Isn’t this like the kingdom of God?” she asked in response. “Haven’t you encountered God’s kingdom like this? It doesn’t feel dry or hungry or wounded, but just takes the tiniest bit of something good and pretty soon it feels like this (spreading her arms). The sower in the verse doesn’t know how it happened, no clue, just a glimpse.”
She related the idea to her own experience of singing Psalm 23 and riding the soaring crescendo that peaks with “…and I will dwell in the house of the Lord…” …how the music and the meaning combine with something else to bring us to a place of fullness. But “just like that and then it’s gone,” she said. “You’ve seen the kingdom of the Lord like this.”
I definitely have: towering, joyous, ineffable and ephemeral, but somehow more real than anything else. “The tiniest bit of something good,” is the phrase, the words that came to me over and over on the drive home from Glisson. Barbara broke character to deliver the description with a southern intonation, an emphasis on the word “good” that somehow evoked intimacy and familiarity.
Why should such a small episode as my son making friends at camp make me so happy? I could explain it as just one of life’s opportune moments, the lucky coincidence of my having had this son and that he should be fortunate enough to go to this camp with these kids. Instead, I had the idea Barbara had given me -- that of the kingdom being the tiniest bit of something good, and that that bit can grow to become even bigger. Cruising down 400, it also occurred to me that I can help it grow, that I can shower my small bit of hopeful water and help sprout the seed.