Like many middle-schoolers growing up in the church, I did my stint of summer Bible camp. Those weeks were a lesson in neglect.
Alongside getting ditched by the girls in my youth group to stay in a cabin with strangers, I dealt with ridicule, stolen belongings, intentional avoidance, and (consequently) crippling homesickness. One year my cabin leader (totally oblivious, bless her) awarded me the nickname “Solitaire” because she often saw me sitting alone on the camp swings.
On a particular summer, around the middle of the week, a “friend” from my church pulled me aside under pretense of camaraderie and let me know that she and the other girls would talk to me “if I bathed more regularly”.
As a hormonal teenager, I’m sure after a couple missed ablutions I smelled a bit ripe. But let me tell you – walking into the camp’s showers was like entering a bacteria culture. You stood on soap scum, tried not to scrape your elbows against the tight walls covered in fungi, and prayed no invertebrates came crawling up the drain to feast on your toes.
I couldn’t fathom how I’d ever get clean in one of those hygiene-forsaken nightmares. And anyway, all the other girls in my cabin got dibs first. I never had a chance.
(Since this “friend” eschewed my company even when I could clean daily, I doubted the authenticity of her claim in general.)
I recently shared this story with a friend at work. We laughed about it, remarked on the hell that is middle school, and went back to our current projects. Then, out of nowhere, I felt like I was going to cry.
I mean, these Bible camp trips happened nearly two decades ago. I’ve since withstood harder things, dealt with grown-up pain, realized the fleeting existence of the teenager caste system. And yet, digging up that story made me hurt more than I had in a long while. The feeling stayed with me, and so later on I shared my confusion with another friend.
She imparted this God-given wisdom: I hadn’t acknowledged the pain of conditional love.
In essence, I’d been offered an ultimatum for affection: “If [condition], then [acceptance].” My bathing schedule was never the point of that interaction. The point was: those girls wouldn’t dare associate with me until I’d met their standards; and even then, the acceptance was a crapshoot.
How many of us, at some point in our lives, have been handed a condition to meet before we’re “in”? Something like:
- If I act like someone I’m not, then I’ll be lovable.
- If I lose weight/if my skin clears up/if I radically change my appearance, then I’ll be lovable.
- If I like this thing that everybody else likes, then I’ll be lovable.
It’s cruel to demand a person jump through such hoops to gain what God has told us to freely grant. Jesus tended to the sick, the poor, the leprous. None of them had to be hygienic or flawless or have the “right” opinions before he poured his love into them.
When I recalled that week at Bible camp, the feelings of inadequacy came flooding back, like I’d never really let them go. They’d been shaping the way I perceived myself and the way I interacted with others, even if minutely. With the roots re-exposed, I had to address the problem once again, surrender the need to meet some phantom standard before I could feel up to snuff.
At the cross, we’re all equal in value; it’s both a humbling and dignifying reality. And now I deal with my own conditional love. For you see, Jesus would love those camp girls, even past their meanness. I’m asked to do the same.