I Love You, But Jesus Loves You the Best

It’s summer camp season! For the first year, my husband and I have sent both […]

Carrie Willard / 6.27.19

It’s summer camp season! For the first year, my husband and I have sent both of our kids to church camp, leaving us with an empty-ish nest for a few weeks. (“Empty-ish” because we have three giant dogs to keep us company and smell up the place.)

Sending my kids to summer camp brings out the best and worst of me as a mother. I’m in full-on zip-loc and Sharpie mode, cross-checking lists and filling out forms. I am the queen of camp mail. I make Rice Krispie treats for the staff. But I’m also scouring the camp website for glimpses of my kids in photos, anxiously hovering near my phone in case I get a call from the nurse, and thinking about the kids more than I maybe should during a rare few weeks alone with my husband.

All of my planning and anxious hovering starts months before we actually drop off the kids. The registration process begins the year before each camp session, before the summer weather ends in Houston. I sort out logistics all winter, and the Easter bunny fills baskets with campy accessories. This is a Whole Deal.

Waiting in the hot line.

When we actually get to the day that we drop off the kids, everybody wants a life hack that will solve the problem of standing in a hot, sweaty line that is reminiscent (to my privileged imagination) of early 1980s Havana. There is even a broken-down bus that has been painted over and retrofitted to become a fresh popcorn dispenser. There is a time warp-y feeling that the day has lasted forever, and yet has just begun. Someone asked me about what time we leave camp after drop-off, and I legitimately had no idea of what time we usually leave, even though I’ve been doing this for several years now. Is it dark when we get home? I don’t even remember. The day takes on a hazy, dream-like quality in my memory from one year to the next. When trying to strategize exactly when to arrive at camp to get in line and get the best bunk, I told one friend, “it’s best to set expectations low and hope for the best.”

That is now my parenting motto for everything. Set expectations low and hope for the best.

I have a caveat about the setting expectations low. I have extremely high expectations for safety and the standards that camp staff are expected to meet. I asked *very* pointed questions about Safe Church training for camp staff, and learned more about their lifeguarding qualifications than I ever needed to know. The camp our kids attend is very nice but not fancy. I’m ok with not fancy, but I won’t abide unsafe. The “keeping expectations low” is more for myself, as I try to life-hack my way through the shortest amount of time spent in line for the best bunk choice. I have low expectations that someone won’t melt down in line, or that we won’t spill Skittles all over the floor. We’re going to wait in the long line no matter what.

The thing about that sweaty line is that it’s a great equalizer. Even those of us who have dropped off kids for years sit in line, sweating and waiting, and still a tiny bit anxious about what the next week will bring. Will the kids have fun? Will I miss them? Will they remember to wear sunscreen? Will they have a friend? Whether we drove up in a Mercedes SUV or barely made it in a duct-taped old junker, we all love our kids and want them to love their week at church camp.

For those of us who are used to seeing our kids every day, even when they’re at school for most of the day, it’s a weird feeling to know you won’t see them in person for a week. I know that people who are not that much older than I am who are getting ready to drop off their kids off for college, and didn’t get so much as one photo while their kids were at camp a decade ago. They’re going to say in the comments, “Suck it up, buttercup.” I submit to them that at least some of them were feeling as neurotic as I do at camp drop-off, whether they remember it or not. It’s a different kind of saying goodbye to a kid who just learned how to wash his hair, and still has more than half of his baby teeth in his mouth. Not harder than sending a 20-year-old off for a semester abroad, but different.

This getting ready to say goodbye is what we do as parents. I realize that our job is to work ourselves out of a job. We think that nobody can love our kids the way that we do, and we aren’t completely wrong in that. But letting someone else love them is one of the best ways I can love them myself.

One of the songs they sing before bedtime at church camp is “I Wish You Goodnight.” It’s a very old funeral song from the Bahamas, called a “lowering down song” because it was sung to the deceased as he was lowered into his grave. At times, it was a popular inscription on grave stones. It’s been adapted by the Grateful Dead and Randy Newman, but the camp version goes like this:

Good night, my dear campers, lay down and take your rest.
Won’t you lay your head down upon your Savior’s breast?
I love you, oh, but Jesus loves you the best.
And I bid you good night, good night, good night.

I dare you to hear a group of children singing that to each other and not weep. The kids don’t know it’s a funeral song, and neither did I until a few nights ago when I googled it. They just go to bed knowing that they are loved.

The thing about dropping off kids at camp after months of organizational checklists and hours of standing in line, is that it lowers us into something that we might not recognize in the mirror on an average Tuesday in the boardroom, but it opens us up to receive something that is as pure and all-encompassing as Jesus’ love for us and for our purely beloved children. Hair frizzed and face dripping with sweat, I don’t feel particularly holy after stretching sheets onto a sandy bunk bed. But that’s just it — I’m not particularly holy. I need Jesus for that.

The camp drop-off lowering into the grittiest part of me reminds me of what my kids will receive all week. No matter how many skittles were spilled while waiting in line or how many times we negotiated screen time during the first few weeks of summer break, or whether we forgot a pillowcase for them to lay their heads down at the end of the day… Jesus’ love is waiting for these campers. They are so open to it after a long day of swimming and archery and canoeing, because they are so exhausted they have nothing left to give. They can only receive this wish of love and good night. For kids who have just learned to wash their own hair and have never been away from their mom for more than a night or two, they will have ample opportunity to mess something up every day. They will drop their toothbrush in the dirt. They will wear the same shirt every day. They will sit in a pile of ants. And then they will be told, every night, that they are loved.

This summer in particular, I’m feeling every bit of my privilege as we drop off our kids at this safe, clean, fun summer camp as other children are separated from their parents at the border, and other children go to sleep hungry or afraid all over the world and even in our own city. That doesn’t that mean that I won’t drop off my kids, out of guilt that other parents don’t have the same privilege. But it does mean that I’m going to use some of their time away to write to my senators and volunteer my time for kids who weren’t born to me. I read the accounts of those children and those families with eyes wide open, and I’m embarrassed at my neuroticism about packing the correct number of washcloths in a camp trunk.

To my fellow parents in the check-in line, sand between our toes and heat creeping up our necks, knowing that we’re going to hit “refresh” on the photo webpage seventeen times at 10 pm every night for the next week:

Good night, my dear parents, lay down and take your rest.
Won’t you lay your head down upon your Savior’s breast?
I love you, oh, but Jesus loves you the best.
And I bid you good night, good night, good night.