Matthew 18:5 says: “And whosever receives one such child in My name receives Me…”
I was about seven years old the first time I ever went to a summer youth camp. It was about the first time I’d ever even been away from home without mom and dad. But before we get into this too far, I need to make sure you understand that Indian Cave Youth Camp was NOTHING like our modern, air-conditioned cabins that we have for many of our camps today. NOTHING like it at all – not even close. Let’s say the word “rustic,” well, it was quite the compliment!
I can remember that camp like it was yesterday. There was no air conditioning. There were cinderblock wall cabins, bathhouses you had to walk a country mile to get to, screen windows that didn’t shut even with the rain, luke-warm water at best, and creepy-crawlies in every nook and cranny possible! It was a far cry from my cozy bed in the safety of my mom and dad! I was so incredibly homesick that I could barely function without crying. Somewhere near the beginning of the week, I remember sitting off somewhere just crying, so desperately wanting to go home, but struggling to stay and make the most of it. I could imagine my mom and dad at home, and what it would feel like to hug them, and sleep in my bed with all of my stuffed animals surrounding me.
As I was sitting there crying, one of the camp staff named Byron Jones made his way over to me. He quietly knelt and asked me what was wrong. In my squeaky little 7-year-old tearful voice, I told him how much I missed my parents and that I just wanted to go home. As I poured out my heart, he gently listened to me. He didn’t make light of my tears or how I felt. It was important to him, and I was important to him. Then he told me that he knew a little something that he thought would make me feel better – that he’d be back in a minute. Little did I know, he would return minutes later with an ice-cold can of Coca-Cola. Yep, I don’t think I’d ever had a Coke taste better than that one did that day. As we enjoyed our ice-cold drinks, we sat on a couple of old tree stumps and just talked. He assured me that he was my new friend and that if I needed him, he would be there. He told me I was going to have the best week at camp and that I wouldn’t want to miss it for anything!
I’m not sure how long we talked that day or even all that we talked about exactly, but I can say for sure that my week was forever changed. I think I was forever changed. I made it through that week of camp and went to several camps after that summer. But I never forgot about Byron or our talk, or that can of Coke. I know there wasn’t anything special about that can of Coca-Cola, but he made me feel like I was the most important person in the world that day. As a child, that meant the world to me. He could have been doing anything else at that moment, but he chose to talk with me and care about me. I couldn’t articulate it then, but almost 40 years later, I still haven’t forgotten it. The fact that he took 10 minutes out of his crazy, hectic, tiring camp schedule, and took time to comfort a homesick little girl, was no small thing, especially to my 7-year-old heart.
I’ve heard it said before, that people might forget what you say, or what you do, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel. Sometimes we get so busy going and doing that we forget about the why. Why we do what we do? Why do we even have youth camps at all? Why are we in ministry? In scripture, Jesus often speaks of children and their importance. Shaping their hearts is one of the most important things we can do. Children often just need someone to listen to them. To realize that what they’re feeling or saying is important, that they are important. Children never forget the kindness we show them or the times we listen to them and try to explain what happened at school, on the playground, in the computer lab, or at recess. I know it takes an extra measure of grace and patience to listen sometimes, especially when we’re tired. When we’re exhausted in every way possible, known to man because we’ve worked all day, so hard, and no one has taken the time to listen to us: when the laundry is piled eight loads high on the couch, when the dishes are crusted over and the stench hits you as you approach the sink, and when the floors haven’t been mopped in who knows when and we crave 10 minutes by ourselves uninterrupted.
But God calls us to love children and to shape their hearts after Him: to teach them His ways, to teach them His Word, to teach them to forgive the kid at school who’s mean to them even when they didn’t say they were sorry, to love people who don’t love them back, to love God more than anyone or anything, and to guide them as they navigate this road, we call life. And it’s not easy, whether you’re a parent, teacher, pastor, children’s ministry worker…no matter your role. If you touch the life of a child, you’ve touched the heart of God. Don’t take your role lightly. Remember that they will never forget the time you take with them. The smile you give them. The love and forgiveness you model daily. The simple things like tying their shoes for them or helping them up after they’ve fallen. It’s all important because they are important. Allow God to give you His heart for them and an extra measure of love, grace, and patience. Take time to shape their heart to look like Him. They won’t ever forget it.
Today, almost 40 years later, I work at the Cornerstone Conference helping to plan and organize the very youth camps that so deeply impacted and changed my life. I am also in full-time ministry with my husband and our five children. Five beautiful, loving, healthy children who at times can test my patience and walk with God more than anyone ever could, but that I love more than life itself and cry at the thought of them going to college and leaving home. But as I think and pray for their future, I pray for people like Byron Jones to come into their lives. People who will love them and take time with them when their dad and I aren’t there. I know without a doubt that I wouldn’t be who I am, or even where I am today, if it hadn’t been for my family, and people like Byron Jones all along the way who cared about me. Who loved me and took time with me as a child and prayed for me and shaped my heart. God is a good God. A faithful God. I encourage you today to take time to show the children around you who God is. They’re listening, waiting for us to share the truth. They crave it. They need it. Their hearts will be shaped one way or the other…make sure we’ve taken the time to shape it in His image.