It is a beautiful sunny morning during our area camp trip at Lake Champion, and there are 400 or so campers and leaders on the front field for field games. One of the guys in my cabin group is named Chris. He is a teenager with Autism, and he is nonverbal. Chris came to Lake Champion because his sister Meredith brought him.
Months before, Meredith persistently brought Chris to local Young Life club meetings. She said it was so important to her because Chris will never have a job or get married, and she wanted him to have the experience of being a “normal kid” and to know about Jesus. At first, Chris didn’t stay long at club meetings; he didn’t like the noise. But eventually he acclimated and stayed long enough to hear the club talks at the end. Young Life camp was going to be a stretch for Chris, being surrounded by 400 loud teenagers all day, but Meredith kept talking about it, and we eventually worked it out for him to come for three days. It was now day three of camp, and Chris was enjoying himself, sometimes participating in the activities and sometimes sitting off to the side doing math problems with his dad who came as Chris’ “buddy”.
Back on the field, the first game was a sword fight where they handed out hollow plastic tubes for a massive battle, originally designed for girls to get swords and ride on guys’ backs for the battle. I thought that Chris might not do well with a girl on his back, so I got him a sword and put him on my back. It turns out that the program team abandoned the riding on the back thing, so we were the only piggy-back team out there–first for the girl’s battle, and then for the guy’s. I’m sure we looked ridiculous, but Chris had fun knocking both guys and girls with the hollow tube. Next came the flour bombs: paper napkins with a handful of flour wrapped inside. Chris grabbed a couple flour bombs but didn’t understand they are meant to be thrown–he just kept breaking them in his hand. Then he got an idea: he broke one over my head, spilling the white flour all over my short, thinning hair. He took his hands and made sure it was rubbed in well. We were both laughing. Then, somehow, he got a hold of a water balloon. He broke that over my head, too, and kneaded the mixture into a thick dough. Chris laughed like it was the most fun he had ever had. His joy made me laugh uncontrollably, and in that moment, I experienced God’s grace in a new way.
There he was–Chris, making a mess with flour bombs and water balloons just like the other 400 or so “normal” kids there. I had the privilege of being right in the middle of it, yet I had done very little to be able to experience that moment. Meredith and her dad had been the ones spending most of their time at camp thus far keeping track of Chris and keeping him happy and occupied, while I spent time with other kids. Furthermore, the campership money that made it possible for Chris to go had been given months before by some friends of the ministry without me even asking for it. And from the beginning, Meredith had been the one to advocate for Chris to come to Young Life club and camp–he didn’t come because of some noble ministry plan or strategy of mine.
In that moment on the field, with dough in my hair, laughing with Chris, I experienced a sense of joy and happiness that I knew was a gift from God. I didn’t deserve or earn such a gift, yet God gave it to me anyway. In that moment, I understood God’s grace a little better than I had before, and inexplicably, I felt His pleasure. I have to admit that I don’t know how a nonverbal, autistic teenager comes to understand who Jesus is, but I hope it has something to do with flour bombs and water balloons.