oh danny boy

it didn’t take long to figure out that danny probably wasn’t going to make it through the week.

it was his first time at camp, and by dinner on monday night, he’d already had his first run-in with his counselors by refusing to clean his plate. every other kid behaving well didn’t help his plight. after derick, the camp director for the week came over to talk to danny in order to avoid an incident, danny cleaned his plate and everything was fine for a little while.

at the beginning of the week, i took danny for one of the dozens of punk kids that come through camp of the hills every year – someone who was just out to cause trouble and wanted to get sent home. i even though it was a bit funny that he wouldn’t stay the whole week, thinking that he’d get what was coming to him.

but soon i began to discover a problem: danny really wasn’t a bad kid. he was generally respectful. he didn’t cause fights. he said, “yes, sir” and “no, sir” when he was in trouble. it wasn’t that danny was a troubled troublemaker like so many kids who come through camp – danny and his brother simply couldn’t understand what was going on around them. “it’s like every two or three minutes, his brain just reboots and loses everything,” my friend mark, a counselor, said.

they didn’t understand the difference between “positive” and “negative” points, and had no concept of how many points they were earning, or why it was good to earn positive points and bad to earn negative points. they couldn’t seem to comprehend that doing good things (or even not doing bad things) would earn them credit to be traded in at the end of the week for rewards, while refusing to follow instructions would result in them going home.

adrian, danny’s brother, was far less antagonistic, and seemed to do fairly well. danny, however, did not. after dinner on monday night, things seemed to go ok, but by 10:00 on tuesday morning, danny had already “broken contract.” while everyone else had fun fishing or playing basketball or canoeing or playing on the ropes course, danny spent an hour moving rocks. he would take one rock from the first pile and move it about 50 feet away to a second pile. once there, he would take a rock from the second pile and move it back to the first. another broken contract would mean he was going home.

at first it was just annoying, and several of us joked about when he would be sent home. but it didn’t take long before we started cheering for danny, hoping he would make it. each completed activity lessened his chances of being sent home. he survived tuesday night only by the grace of his counselors. at 10:00 on wednesday, danny had a new lease life – contract free. wednesday was uneventful until bedtime, when he went on contract again.

this time, he didn’t make it past breakfast.

as chris drove danny home, he asked him about his favorite counselor – was it mr. robert, mr. asa or mr. josh?

“my favorite counselor was mr. derick”

“oh really? mr. derick? why was that?”

“i like mr. derick – he let me move rocks!”

“he did! how was that?”

“that was great! it was the best part of camp!”

as chris told me about his ride with danny, i wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.

danny’s favorite part of camp had been what was intended to be punishment. whether it was because he enjoyed the one on one time he got with derick or simply didn’t understand what was going on around him, or more likely some combination of the two, danny enjoyed moving rocks more than he enjoyed basketball, swimming, and the ropes course. the one thing that stuck out to him as “the most fun” was moving rocks between two piles while derick watched.

it would be easy to believe this is only a story. but for me, the troubling part – the splinter that is working its way through my mind – is the question of what to do with the danny’s i encounter in my life. there are so many difficult questions in his story, many of them without satisfactory answers. woven in danny’s story is a tale of justice and injustice, of punishment and mercy, of understanding and ignorance.

how do we deal with people who legitimately do not fully grasp how to function in their environment? can we necessarily hold them to the same set of rules as “normal” people? can ignorance/mental ability/history be an “excuse” (or explaination) for bad behavior? if so, what then do we demand in future behavior? what is our response to these people as Christians? how do we present the Gospel in a way that is both understandable and meaningful to people who have difficulty understanding the meaning of basic simple concepts?

how patient are we with those who need to be taken care of in a special way? as i watched mark take care of danny on tuesday night, going above and beyond the call of duty to make sure danny wouldn’t be sent home, i felt a tremendous amount of respect seeing my friend extend true unmerited favor so danny could make it through the night and stay at camp in the morning. i saw the love of Christ displayed in a special way in mark’s actions, and had to question what the love of Christ looks like to people like danny, not only on tuesday night, but wednesday morning and thursday, and however long they continue to remain in our lives.

in an ultimate Christian sense, is it ever right to send people away? in the situation with danny, part of the discussion was his effect on the cabin. his removal improved the situation for all of the other campers. as i reflected on the situation, the words of robbie seay’s song “go outside” echoed in my mind: “no one should be left out… no one should be left out… no one should be left out…” how do we turn this idealistic notion into a reality?

perhaps most condemning for me, what is my (our) attitude toward these people? it is easy to get caught up in our educated middle-class mentality and forget the vast majority of the world does not think or percieve the world in the same way i (we) do. first, do i (we) sincerely believe as Jesus did that these people are not only worth saving, but worth going to all lengths to save? second, do my (our) actions reflect that?

i doubt i will ever see danny again, and it is unlikely i will ever know how his story turns out, but in less than three days, he became a personal incarnation of many of the troubling questions i am wrestling with right now. my prayer is that God will continue to pursue danny, and that he will indeed draw him into the body of Christ. but i pray also that my eyes and heart would be open to the danny’s of the world, that my love would extend as far as the love of Christ.

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