In the sunset of my teenaged years, my mother would take her four unmarried, un-launched children for a week of camping that was two parts vacation to one part retreat. Packing for Christian Family Camp consisted of throwing a pile of clothes into a sack, and bundling it with a sleeping bag, and a few toiletries.
Mom wisely chose to stay in her own cabin, leaving her boys free to live a feral lifestyle next door. Our cabin, affectionately christened, “The Swamp,” became known for the evolving, mutating sculpture of dirty clothes and trash that accumulated beneath our army cots. A Styrofoam cooler, originally stocked with fruit, soda, and lunchmeat, slowly morphed into the equivalent of a large, white Petri dish. Gradually, as the coolant melted away in the August heat, meat-water mixed and mingled with decomposing fruit, and liquefied candy, creating a pungent laboratory.
To her credit, if mom had any housekeeping criticism for us, she kept it to herself. Our cabin must have been downwind. In retrospect, I can see a kind of calculated, practical wisdom in her apparently nonchalant attitude. In a large camp, where kids can roam freely, her pubescent boys’ lack of domestic hygiene must have given her one less thing to worry about. Mom knew that no girl with a functioning olfactory nerve would dare pass within a football field of that fouled nest. She knew that the ambiance we had created for our cabin was more attractive to turkey vultures than the females of our own species.
Almost three decades have past, and I’m still going to that same camp, but now I’m the adult bringing the kids. This week, I’ve begun the process of schlepping camp items up from the basement. Sometimes, while straining under the load of another “necessary item,” I’ll think back on that boy who used to take ten minutes to load up a stuff sack and go.
Time has a way of changing people. These days, I pack a “camp” dresser, make-shift shoe rack, portable drawers full of tools, and a wooden rod for hanging clothes from the rafters. Rather than wait for breakfast, a propane stove and camp percolator delivers a fresh cup of coffee for my morning ritual of quiet prayer in the woods. Sometimes, while packing, I’ll look around a corner, and catch a glimpse of the younger camp version of myself. He’ll just be standing there having a good-natured laugh at my new-found inner-Felix Unger. Things have come a long way from camp-cooler science experiments, and mutating trash-clothing sculptures on a cabin floor.
In this Sunday’s Gospel selection (Mark 6:7-13), Jesus sent his rookie disciples out for their first foray into their new ministries of expelling unclean spirits, and preaching repentance. His instructions were as sparse as the items his protégé’s were allowed to pack (i.e. a walking staff, a pair of sandals, one tunic; no food, no money, no overnight bag). He offered them no script, no training manual, no “Jesus’ Top Ten Principles for a Successful Ministry.” In this respect, Jesus showed himself to be the master of keeping it simple.
Rather than loading down his new ministers with burdensome directives, Jesus gave them room to work things out for themselves. In the process, it is not hard to imagine that some mistakes were made. Some skills and gifts were discovered. In many instances, wisdom was probably learned the hard way.
It seems to me that my mom of three decades ago had adopted Jesus’ simple approach. Somehow, she had managed to get three teenagers, and one pre-teen to attend a faith-based camp. This was the most important thing to her. This was the ball she would keep her eye on…not her boy’s housekeeping skills. By taking a hands-off approach, she gave her sons room to have fun as they grew in faith.
If this Sunday’s readings could be boiled down into a bumper-sticker sized phrase, perhaps it would read, “Keep It Simple.” The Kingdom of God is big enough to embrace your strengths, your weaknesses, your peculiar way of seeing things, and narrating what you see. Embracing a deeply spiritual life is just the opposite of imposing a cookie-cutter full of “should’s,” “ought’s,” and “musts” down onto your soul. As you walk through this week in your grace-filled life, can you allow Jesus to invite you to simplify things a little bit more? Is there a load that you or someone else has heaped upon your back that doesn’t belong there anymore? This week, will you hear Jesus inviting you to travel just a little more lightly?