I spent most of the month of June and into July out at Washington Family Ranch, a Young Life camp, working in the dining hall with 11 high school students. For 21 days, we served food, mixed juice, bussed tables and lived in community and family with one another. We were volunteering in a role at camp known as "work crew."
One of my favorite parts about being on work crew is that at the start of a new camp week, work crew gets to welcome the new campers onto the property. They line the sidewalks where the buses drive up and they cheer for students as they exit their bus and run towards camp with their leaders.
For a lot of students, welcome is one of the most wonderful things they've ever experienced. The hype and celebration is so real; it feels as if you've shown up to a party that's just for you. For other campers though, welcome is one of the most overwhelming things they've ever experienced. The genuine joy, applause and excitement found at welcome is something that many people don't experience in their lifetime, especially as a junior-higher or high school student. It's shocking to be greeted by smiles, cheers and joy for seemingly no reason other than your presence – but I think it is especially so after a year of isolation and fear.
The first students who set foot on property in June were no exception to this. As we lined the sidewalks, whooping and hollering, and campers got off the bus and walked through a tunnel of work crew kids, their reactions were those of shame. They looked down at the ground, they wouldn't make eye contact, and some even covered their faces. The reality was this: when face to face with acceptance and love, most kids couldn't bear to look it in the eyes.
There's a story in scripture that many of us know and love; it involves an older brother, a father and a prodigal son. It's found in Luke 15, and the whole story can be read in verses 11-32. It goes a little something like this though: There are two sons. The younger one asks for his inheritance, and in doing so, expresses to his father that he wishes him dead. The father gives him his share of his estate and the son moves far away. He wastes everything and falls into ruin. The son decides to return home and try to work as a servant in his father's household. And then, a hinge point of the story, verse 20.
"So, he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him." (NLT)
I've written before about how my young high school friends and I often gather together and practice visio divina, or rather, we look at spiritual and religious art beside scripture as a devotional method. This past year, we looked at multiple depictions of the prodigal son, and most of them are illustrative of verse 20, where the son has just returned home and is met by his father's embrace.
In many of these art pieces, the son is covering his face in shame. The love, care and compassion being shown to him is almost too much to behold. He cannot comprehend it, and he cannot approach it while looking it in the eyes.
More and more, it is becoming apparent to me that much like the prodigal son and the campers who arrived at camp this summer, we approach the love of God in the same posture – face covered, eyes cast to the side, bowing our heads in shame. I think we even do this with one another, when met with the love of Jesus through other human beings.
It's easy to see this play out at camp, but that's not the only place it happens; it happens here, too, in our normal, everyday lives. It happens with our family, our friends, our neighbors and even strangers. We long to be loved, but we hesitate to accept the love offered if we don't believe we've earned it, and especially if we believe we've squandered it.
One of the hardest realities for us to learn might just be that God is always running towards us in compassion and excitement and love. Within the prodigal son's return to his father, there is no depiction or hint of disappointment. So it is with us and God as well. He is only waiting for us to return home. No pointing fingers, no harsh words, no frustration with our reluctance. God's love is patient enough to continue cheering as we cover our faces in shame and quickly walk towards our cabin; later on, in the dining hall that love will find us, look into our face, and smile.
God's love is reckless enough that it dashes down the road as we freeze, crippled by our past and guilt; that same love will embrace us when it meets us, it will gently wait for us to uncover our eyes, no matter how long it takes.
I would ask you two things: Can you attempt to love others with this forgiving, very big love? And also, can you accept this love? For this is our task, to behold the love running down the road towards us, to lean into the embrace, to uncover our faces and gaze on his face – the face of love.
Perhaps I should only ask you this – will you look Jesus in the eyes today?
Bella Bonnano is the area director for Crook County Young Life. She can be reached at 541-325-9862.
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