I first noticed Paul as he was struggling to drag his suitcase up the steps of the lodge to check-in for
camp that dry Monday afternoon. His nine year old frame was only slightly bigger than the puffy sleeping bag sneaking out from under his left arm. I probably should have offered assistance, but I was fascinated right away at this little boy’s tenacity, and I felt that to interrupt would be to steal the victory I hoped awaited him at the top.
The best way I can think to describe him is that he reminded me of a puppy philosopher. He was small and cute … like a puppy, but time after time he would ask the simple but profound questions of a deep thinker, and yet, like a person trying to remember who they are, these questions were asked without the pride that so often attends great minds.
As we sat on the cool concrete pad behind the craft shack that Wednesday morning I kicked myself. Our post of 8 elementary boys had spent the past few days together and yet it was only at that moment that I realized the stupid assumption I had been making about Paul. I had simply asked him to pray and without any sense of the embarrassment that kids from a typical Christian home would suffer he declared he didn’t know how. “You’ve never prayed before?” I asked. “Nope” he said with a slight shake of his disheveled brown head. Curious, I probed, “Have you ever read the Bible before Paul?” “No, this week is the first time.” He said simply.
I’d like to say that the point of this story is how Paul, in storm of emotion, came to know Jesus … but that’s not what happened. I don’t know in what spiritual condition Paul left camp that week, but I know that after that moment I was changed, and I resolved the rest of the week to make sure to avoid assumptions. No more Christian jargon, and words with which Paul might not be familiar would now be explained. The result: something marvelous. Not only did things start to make sense to Paul, they started to make sense to the rest of the boys as well.
While doing our Bible Study on Friday I caught the word “gospel” jumping enthusiastically from my mouth for the thousandth time that week. I stopped and instead of continuing, I grabbed a backpack sitting on the grass, removed a sweating half eaten sandwich in its zip-lock coffin and placed the empty backpack over Paul's little shoulders. Quickly scouring the surrounding woods for some large rocks I then began to fill the backpack. Poor little Paul became the object lesson of the weight caused by the guilt of our sin as rock after rock was added to his backpack. But as he struggled not to topple over his fight to stay upright produced those satisfying lightbulbs of revelation teachers thirst for as boys began to nod heads and whisper words of sudden insight.
Diverse but important topics such as Jesus as the God-Man and the theology and practice of prayer were discussed that week precisely because a nine year old was willing to ask wonderfully simple and yet profound questions and I stopped making assumptions. Paul came to camp having never opened a bible before and having no idea what prayer is or how to do it, and yet I think of all the people from whom I learned the most this summer it was him.