When I was 12 years old, my parents started sending me to a Christian summer camp located in a much deeper part of the Bible Belt than I had been raised.
During that first summer at camp, I spent two weeks living with the nicest, most encouraging strangers I had ever met in my life. The people I met at camp seemed to value me simply for breathing, celebrate my uniqueness, and care deeply about the things that troubled me the most.
I won literal awards – in the form of actual medals and ribbons – for simply being myself.
One afternoon, I got presented with a ribbon for giving “110%” of my effort during a water-skiing lesson earlier that morning. On another occasion I received a standing ovation in the dining room for something so insignificant that I cannot even remember what it was now. At the end of the two-week term, each elective activity gave out some kind of award to a very large percentage of it’s participants, each cabin gave a special award to each camper, and the camp gave out many gender-specific awards to a handful of campers in each age group.
I often felt like I was being baptized in accolades.
And it wasn’t just the camp staff that made me feel special. The campers who had been attending this camp for years before me were also surprisingly skillful at round-the-clock encouragement. It probably helped that there were ribbons given out for being an excellent encourager, and often times campers were singled out for public praise if they had behaved in especially generous ways towards other campers. Yet, if you asked any of them why and how they were so relentlessly kind towards their peers, they would always tell you it was because they loved Jesus, and because Jesus had said that “we should treat other people the way we would want to be treated” (Matthew 7:12, paraphrase).
Being the beneficiary of this spiritual benevolence probably would have been a positive emotional experience for any adolescent girl, but for a girl who had spent the last three years being somewhat mercilessly harassed by her peers at school, this was sublime. By the time my parents would arrive to come take me home, I didn’t want to leave.
At the wise old age of 12 (and a half), I didn’t consider the complexity of my experience, nor the simplicity of my impression. I didn’t think about the uniqueness of my isolated environment, and the positive reinforcement it provided. I did not consider the multiplicity in anyone’s motives – i.e. ribbons and medals, “bonus points in heaven”, and/or something more inspired. Neither did I care about whether or not there would be strings attached to the sense of inclusion I had been offered that summer. All I could comprehend back then was that Jesus seemed to make people want to be kind and good towards one another.
Frankly, he made me want to be kind and good too. (Still does).
At some now-forgotten moment during my two-week stay in this camp, I became pretty passionately convinced that Jesus was the all-encompassing answer for me. But. Here’s the catch: I also became simultaneously certain that Jesus was the answer for everyone else too. Earnestly, I often thought to myself, “if only everyone else could get to know Jesus like the people at camp know him, then they too would start acting in loving, gracious ways, and the whole world would be so much better”!
And this, my friends, is how an ‘Evangelical’ is born.
Or, perhaps I should say: this is how one young evangelical was born.
Yet, as it is with all births — expelled along with wondrous new life, you might also push some poop out onto the delivery table. In this case, alongside the instructions about how to treat others with generosity and love, I also learned that being a follower of Jesus meant that the good things I did were just as important as the bad things I did NOT do. In fact, I often got the impression that manifesting an abundance of love or grace towards my fellow man was not as meaningful as avoiding a very important list of explicit and implicit “don’t”‘s:
Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t do drugs, don’t have sex outside of marriage, don’t cheat, don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t swear, don’t lust after anyone, don’t have gay feelings or “tendencies”, don’t be jealous, don’t be lazy, don’t lie (unless the truth is impolite), don’t gossip (unless you can disguise it as concern), don’t dress provocatively, don’t dance provocatively, don’t make men feel uncomfortable in general, don’t disrespect your parents, don’t challenge your elders, don’t ask questions no one can answer, don’t be a downer, and don’t be too ambitious.
Now, if that sounds a bit more like a “Southern Manners Manual for Making A Nice Christian Girl out of Your Teenage Daughter”, and less like “The Ten Commandments” or
“The Sermon on the Mount”, it might be because THAT’S WHAT IT IS.
(… once again: more later).