Will’s burns turned out to be minor. Nothing the nurse couldn’t sooth with ointments and creams. But I was still getting nowhere with my conversations about God.
It wasn’t that I was useless at this church camp. I wrote a couple of skits the campers seemed to like. One featured God as a guest on a talk show. The other had Jesus driving a minivan with the disciples in tow. But I’d had no luck with my cabin.
One of the evening, camp-wide activities was an art project. Each camper was issued a piece of newsprint, paint and brushes. Their task: draw your picture of heaven.
Most of my campers painted clouds, angels, God with a long, white beard. But Bradley Briscoe painted a more earthly vision of heaven.
I looked over his shoulder as he painted a beautiful green field, a small pond, offset by a pastel sunrise. In the middle of the field stood a majestic deer.
“That’s wonderful,” I said. “Hey, everyone, come look at Bradley’s picture of heaven.”
As the campers and counselors gathered around, I thought this might be my chance. I asked Bradley to tell us all about his picture. Bradley described the image. He told us it was his grandfather’s property.
Then, he dipped his brush into the black paint, drew a large dark circle in the center and two crosshairs that intersected at the deer’s heart.
“This is my vision of heaven,” Bradley said, “a buck in the sights of my .220.” He paused for a moment and pointed to the right side of the painting, adding, “And once, I took a dump in that pond.”
With only two days of camp remaining, I turned to the Guinness Book of World Records. I focused on the section labeled “The Natural World.” It would be a natural to also talk about God’s world.
I started with the biggest animals in nature — the ocean’s blue whale and the earth’s elephants. A 30-foot-long snake and a crocodile that weighs more than 1,000 pounds. A crab with a leg-span of 12 feet and a hairy spider that is 18 inches in diameter. I even touched on the largest dinosaurs: the giant sauropods that grew to lengths of 200 feet.
Then, I moved to the largest living organisms — the great Sequoia that stand over 275 feet tall and the great barrier reef (the largest structure composed on living organisms) that stretches 2,000 kilometers.
The miracles of nature — of God’s world — were astounding even to boys with short attention spans.
Then, I moved to the human world. I showed them photographs of the heaviest living man — a fellow from Canton, Mississippi, (just ten miles from camp) named Fat Albert who weighed in at 800 pounds. I told them about the longest moustache (12 feet), the longest fingernails (100 plus inches on one hand) grown by an Indian man, the shortest adult woman on record (19 inches tall) and, of course, everyone’s favorite, Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest man.
Wadlow’s life is well documented. A man who grew to a height of 8 feet, 11 inches, he had no choice but to make a living as a sideshow celebrity. But he hated that life. He just wanted to be a lawyer. The book showed him at Boy Scout camp towering over the other boys, trying to play leapfrog with his friends who were a full three feet shorter. There was a graphic charting Wadlow’s growth. I read it to the boys, focusing on their age group.
At age five, Wadlow was 5’, 4” tall. At age eight, he was 6’. At age ten, he was 6’, 5” and at age 13, Wadlow had grown to 7’ 5” in height.
Bradley Briscoe asked, “Why did he grow so much from ten to 13?”
Without thinking, I said, “I’m sure he went through puberty.”
“What’s puberty?” one of the boys asked.
The room was quiet. Every boy waited for my answer. And I was acutely aware that whatever I said would be repeated to parents throughout the Episcopal dioceses of Mississippi. Probably on the way home, from the back seat, when a mother or father asked, “Well, what’d you learn at camp?”
Knowing full well that my response would be twisted and repeated inaccurately over and over again, I weighed my words carefully. Just as I was about to answer, Joe, the chubby kid from West Point, held up his hand.
“I know what puberty is, Mr. Neil.”
“Well . . . Joe,” I said, “why don’t you tell us.”
Joe flashed a worldly grin and said, “That’s when you get the big Oscar Meyer.”
On the last afternoon of camp, I had yet to have a satisfactory talk about God. And it appeared as if my time had run out. The last night would be filled with a carnival, a dance and games. And the boys were more interested in impressing the girl campers at the dance than any talk about a deity.
As I walked through the cabin, one camper had slathered on aftershave. Another had pulled out a pressed dress shirt. A camper named Robert was frantically searching through his suitcase.
“Man,” he said, “where is it? Darn!”
I couldn’t imagine what Robert had just discovered was missing after six days at camp.
“What’s wrong, Robert?” I asked.
“Man,” he said, “I forgot my toothbrush.”
I never did figure out how to talk about God. But that evening, as I walked around Camp Bratton Green, I noticed a college girl sit patiently for an hour as she helped a camper finish lanyards for her mother and father. I listened to the children call out to a recluse named Bob who lived across lake . . . and watched as they waited for his response to echo across the still water.
I listened to the children sing a song called “Pharaoh, Pharaoh” (sung to the tune of “Louie, Louie”) and watched as they learned the accompanying dance from the camp counselors. From afar, I heard the sound of kids doing cannonballs off the diving board. I sat for a while and watched the children play ice bucket kick ball and capture the flag. I helped wash the soap out of the eyes of a girl who had just finished her turn on the soapy slide. Then, she got right back in line.
For more than seven decades, this camp has been a place where children and adults came to run and laugh and sing. A place to be silly, yet safe. A place to leave burdens behind. A place to make new friends. A place where nothing is as pressing or important as taking a moment to be kind to another human.
As I walked that sacred ground, I finally understood. Nothing else needed to be said.
Note: Bradley Briscoe, now a U.S. Marine, just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan