The summer I turned twenty-one I was invited to be a camper companion at Camp Quality. It was a wonderful program, built entirely around the goal of giving children who deal with chronic and/or terminal illness, especially cancer, the chance to attend summer camp free of charge.
For seven days the children stayed at beautiful Camp Farwesta in Missouri. They swam, danced, performed, went hot air ballooning, canoeing, horseback riding, train riding, water balloon fighting, singing, and the list goes on. It was seven days to take their minds off the worries of the sickness and simply be a kid.
The training we received prepared us for the reality of their lives. Broken homes from the financial stress of cancer treatments, absentee fathers and mothers who couldn’t handle the emotional pain of a child with cancer, children hurt by friends who stopped playing with them because they were afraid of the phantom sickness that was destroying them, children who came to us having already spent half of their days in a hospital or under treatment; always sick, often in pain. The list of things that these little ones dealt with on a regular basis was sobering. I left that training day half expecting my camper to arrive in a full-body cast or limping along with dark, hollow eyes staring sadly around.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
My camper was a wonderful little 5 year old boy named David. He was full of life, attitude, sweetness, and fun. Everyone at camp loved him, from his bust-a-move dancing to his infectious smile and laugh he was making friends and showing that having a difficult road to travel does not mean that you have to walk it in sorrow. He was an inspiration to me. I enjoyed every minute we spent together. He was everything good and sweet that you expect from a little boy.
In our cabin was another young boy whom I will call Josh.
Josh was 8 years old, had been battling cancer for four years and you could tell he was at the end of his rope. He was prickly, depressed, short-tempered, and angry all of the time. His camp companion was very young, very frustrated, and not very well equipped to handle the emotional minefield that was Josh. We traded campers with her on a regular basis so that she and Josh both could enjoy their experience as fully as possible. We tried everything we could to engage Josh in the activities that we went to. He wanted to enjoy them, you could tell he tried, but frustration was his constant companion and we simply couldn’t compete. By the time we were five days into camp we were just trying to minimize the damage done and directing him to things where he wouldn’t hurt himself or others.
It was my turn to be Josh’s companion that fifth evening, it was bath time and he had taken his shower and we had returned to the bunk room. Everyone else was dressed and running out the door to dinner while I tried to get Josh to put on more clothes than just his shorts.
He was not interested in being clothed.
He was not interested in eating dinner.
He was not inclined to be nice.
He was just mad.
He was angry, hurting, and furious at his life.
As I attempted to help him put on his t-shirt he started screaming, kicking, and hitting at me. His words didn’t make any kind of logical sense, they were just a boiling mess of pain and for a moment I was at a loss as to what to do to help him.
I prayed silently.
I prayed for help.
I prayed for patience.
I prayed for Josh.
And then I did the only thing that came to my mind.
I wrapped my arms around that little, angry boy and I just held on.
He still kicked, he still screamed, he tried to hit me again but I just held on and said “I love you Josh. I’m so sorry. I love you Josh.”
After a moment he stopped kicking, he stopped hitting and screaming. He stood silent in my arms.
And then he started to cry.
I held that little boy and I cried with him for a long time, telling him over and over again that I loved him. I could feel all of his hurt in every sob that wracked his body. He was one of the children they told us about. His father had left six months after his diagnosis. His mother worked two jobs to pay the bills and try to keep their family together.
He thought it was his fault. If he hadn’t gotten cancer his dad would have stayed. If he hadn’t gotten sick his mom wouldn’t be so tired. If he hadn’t gotten a disease that he didn’t even understand their family wouldn’t be so poor.
He carried the weight of the world on those little, frail shoulders and it hurt when anyone got close enough to touch.
But in the extremity of his pain and need he let me comfort him.
In the midst of his hurt and anger he finally heard me say “I love you Josh.”
And for a few minutes he was just a scared little boy who could cry out his pain, soak up the love that was there for him, and just be held.
I have thought of those few, tender moments often over the nearly two decades that have passed since.
I have wondered how Josh is.
I have wondered if he made it.
I have wondered if he remembered that he was loved by so many people who really did understand his pain even though he couldn’t see it; people he tried to drive away because of his anger.
And I have thought of how often we are like Josh.
When I received a call five years later and learned that David, my sweet little camper, had succumbed to the cancer he had bravely fought for so long I thought of those moments with Josh. When I have been hurt by gossip I have remembered the love I felt flow through me for that little boy in pain. I have thought of how often we become overwhelmed with the hurt, anger, disappointment, and frustrations that are a part of simply living life. How we react in anger to the very people who love and sacrifice for us the most. We shake our fists at Heaven and cry out our pain to God because we think He doesn’t already know how much we suffer.
We hit, kick, and scream at the arms that hold us while we hurt.
We want God to take the hurt away and we are disillusioned when He doesn’t.
Sometimes in our pain we scream so loud that we can’t hear Him whisper:
“I love you. I’m sorry you hurt. I love you. Keep going; pain will not last forever. You’ll make it through.”
It seems that we have to reach that moment of utter loss to be still enough to see, hear, and feel the hand of God in our lives.
It appears that we must fall to the depths of despondency to recognize the touch of love in the hands of a friend or a family member; love that we hadn’t recognized before because we were too busy screaming and fighting to end our own pain.
We reach that point where the fighting stops. Where our strength gives out and we have nothing left to fight with.
In that stillness is where God lives.
It is where He touches our hearts and heals them.
It is where we hear His voice and learn that love is the most powerful medicine in the world.
But we don’t have to fight or be angry to find that stillness.
We can choose it for ourselves. The result is the same.
He wants to comfort us.
He is always there.
He loves us.
Be still and know that He is.