In the 10 years that I served as a camp counselor at a BSA summer camp, I taught hundreds of kids. Each week was a new batch. And each new batch was full of surprises. Though I have no children of my own, having worked with so many of these kids over the years, I’ve had my fair share of glimpses of what it takes to raise children. I recall once instance when I was serving as Chaplain and we had a lost camper drill. Now, when you’re a staffer and you get the call to gather up and search for a lost camper, two things typically go through your mind. One, the annoyance that 9 times out of 10, the kid is skipping class and is asleep in his tent and the scoutmaster just didn’t bother checking. Two, the fear that comes from that 1 time out of 10 when the child has wandered off and is actually lost. In this case, it was the latter.
Luckily the young scout was found before evening. Another staffer who had gotten into their car and started driving the roads outside of camp was lucky enough to see a little red hat bobbing in the woods. Apparently this young scout had gotten it into his head that he was going to walk back home… to Florida. My initial reaction was irritation. Why on earth would this eleven year old kid think he’s going to walk home? Did the parents raise this child without any sense?
Once the boy was found, however, the story quickly began to unfold. A note was found that he had left in his tent, explaining how he understood that he was “worthless and not wanted” there, so he was going to go home so as not to be a continual bother to anyone else. As a chaplain and counselor, I saw red flags all over this. It didn’t take too long after talking to the boy and his other scout leaders to discover the real culprit in this mess. As it turned out, this troop had an assistant scoutmaster who was a former military man. In his mind, his troop was a little platoon and he treated these boys, from age 11 to 17, like soldiers that needed to be broken. This young scout in particular had been feeling home sick. It was his first time away from his parents for any great length of time. When he developed the usual stomachaches and sniffles, this assistant scoutmaster responded with insults. It was he that provided the young boy with the idea that if he was just going to whine all day then he was “worthless” and needed to be buck up or else he shouldn’t be there.
After the shock of this revelation wore off, I became furious. As chaplain, the emotional and spiritual care of every one of those boys at camp was my responsibility. When I found out about this terrible abuse of authority, the protective mother hen in me kicked in and I was out for blood. When I found out that this gentleman treated all the boys in this troop like that, I had him removed from the camp and sent home the next morning. Finding out that the other leaders in the troop had known this was going on but had done nothing to reign him in led to a very long talk and dressing down with these leaders about their responsibilities to the boys under their care.
I could never imagine treating a child like that. And my heart breaks to think of the countless children out there in abusive households and demoralizing classrooms that leave children hurt and broken at the end of everyday.
What would be my reaction if I saw God as that child being beaten or verbally abused? The same defenses would be just as automatic. But the real question is, should God be treated like a child in that way?
When I talk about experiencing God through contemplative prayer, or when I question the traditional interpretations of the Bible when it’s being used as a weapon, I am met with terrible attacks from fundamentalists and conservative Christians. They attack because I’m questioning their accepted view of God. The same protectiveness and defensiveness that I feel when I see adults physically or emotionally abusing defenseless children is the same quality that leads others to attack anyone who dares question their view of God, as though God were unable to withstand inspection. They have lost the distinction between their view of God and God in actuality. In this way, God should not be treated as a child.
But there is an aspect of children that we can relate to God. We should experience God with the same sense of wonder and exploration that children show towards the world around them. I can see God finding a beautiul flower and enjoying it just because it’s wonderful. I can see God picking me up or anyone else, holding us in His hand and enjoying us just because we are wonderful. Frank Herbert perhaps coined this idea best when he said “Creation is discovery. God discovered us because we moved against a back drop that was already known.” Can we enjoy the pleasure God finds in discovering us just as God creates us?
For our sakes, I pray we can. Amen.