This summer I worked at a kids’ summer camp that ran five days a week, eight hours a day. I know I wasn’t supposed to have favorites but one of my favorite campers was Henry, a boy who had the goofiest buck-tooth grin and wittiest sense of humor. The first week I had him in my group, we did a “roast competition”; we’d go back and forth roasting each other and then say ohhhhhh after the dig. Henry came up with the goofiest, most non-sensical slurs.
“Hey, Miss Shelby!”
“Your mom is so bad at roasting she could never roast me. Ohhhhh!”
Henry made up his own rules for the game. He told me that if he won, I’d have to give him a fidget spinner. I told him, no, that if I won, he’d have to give me a million dollars. He said that wasn’t fair. I said it wasn’t fair I’d have to buy him a fidget spinner. In the end, I concede—he didn’t—and Henry kept track of the roast score the rest of the week. On Friday, the score was something like 75-5; of course, Henry won with 75.
I found out about half-way through camp that Henry was depressed and someplace mild on the autism spectrum. He would have giant mood swings, had few friends, and would go off in the corner and cry by himself. In art class during a particularly rough week, he had one of these dejected episodes. He didn’t want to go home because he was afraid his parents would be upset at him for an incident that had happened earlier that afternoon. He said they would take all his toys and yell at him. He said that no one enjoyed his presence, no one liked him, and everybody was upset with him. These are things no child should ever feel. He leaned his head on my shoulder and, hugging him, I told him that all of the counselors so enjoyed his company, that he had a great sense of humor. I asked him if he knew what “witty” meant. He said no. I said that it was a cross between being really smart and really funny. I told Henry he was witty.
“Henry,” I said. “You are one of the kids at camp that make my job enjoyable. I know for a fact that all the counselors here think the same thing. We all love you very much. Remember when we did the roast war?”
“I still owe you a fidget spinner for that,” I said. “I haven’t forgotten about you. You make me laugh and smile and I like you. I would consider us pretty good friends.” Henry at this point was still crying, but it was warm crying, happy crying. He smiled.
“Thank you for being my friend, Miss Shelby. You make me laugh, too.”
I brought Henry his fidget spinner on my last day of work. I have never seen a kid so happy. He glowed.
Leading children was such a special—and exhausting—experience. There were so many beautiful moments. I learned truly that being a good leader is about being compassionate. About remembering things about people. About building relationships. Ultimately, I learned that a leader is a positive influence. I learned so much about myself this summer—about what patience truly is, how important fairness is, that you can’t always just be a kid’s friend, that you have to tell them when they mess up and show them how to change it. I learned that a heartfelt apology is a kid’s best friend, and at the end of the day the best leaders are the ones who play two v. two basketball with the kids who are waiting to be picked up.
This is the heart of God. There’s nothing God wants more than to have a fun, laughter filled Roast War with you—as long as they’re just goofy jokes, like Henry’s. God is not mean, but He enjoys laughing with us, and I would guess, sometimes He probably enjoys laughing at us, showing us how to laugh at ourselves, because humans are pretty silly sometimes. God is also the I Am who remembers. He remembers that He owes you a fidget spinner, He remembers how badly your heart hurt when you were seven, He remembers your favorite food and what you told Him two months ago. God is our friend.
Richard Bach, in his novel, One, says that “to love unconditionally is not to care who they are and what they do! Unconditional love comes out the same as indifference!”; he asks Leslie his wife to love him conditionally, love him when he’s “the best person [he] can be, cool off if [he] goes thoughtless and boring.” And, without God, this is human love. Humanity doesn’t know the first thing about loving unconditionally. Without God, loving unconditionally is an impossible task. And even with God, because of our status as mere human beings, learning to love unconditionally is really, really difficult. Sometimes it simply means, I love you simply because you’re a human being, and I’ll be indifferent to the time you ripped out my heart and stomped it. The reason God’s love is so amazing is that He loves unconditionally—but not with indifference. He sees everything about you all the time. That pimple you were trying to hide your sophomore year of high school? Yep, He saw that. The time you called Him mean names in your head, you questioned what He was doing, you asserted that you were better, knew more than Him—He saw that. He sees your mess, and He doesn’t run away. He doesn’t stop loving unconditionally. And even with knowing you fully all the time, all your thoughts, everything you’re ever going to ask or say, He finds you so interesting. Jesus would be the most inviting person to talk to; He would constantly be engaged. He would want to hear all about the dinner with your in-laws, even though He was there the whole time and knew your every thought. God’s love is perfect and mysterious and wonderful because He never loves us simply because we’re human beings. He constantly finds us likable and enjoyable and in need of being loved. The Creator of the Universe enjoys spending time with me! And He wants to be my friend. I’m so glad that on hard days, I can go to God’s metaphysical art room and cry on His shoulder and thank Him for being my friend. And smile at the fact He hasn’t forgotten His promises—which, in my case, may or may not include a fidget spinner.