When I was in Junior High, there was this guy named Kenneth. I didn't know him very well. Suffice it to say that in the social economy of my junior high school, Kenneth didn’t quite measure up to my status. I wasn’t all that high on the totem pole myself, but I was higher than Kenneth. We weren’t friends. We weren’t enemies. We just…weren’t. I’m not even sure why I knew his name.
One Sunday morning, I was sitting in the second story room of the old building at the church I grew up at with all of my youth group buddies in a Bible class. There were about 40 of us or so sitting along the walls of this odd-shaped room in chairs around the pool table, the foosball, and the Intellivision. The teacher had begun when a visitor kid opened the door, which made a distinct and loud “ka-thung” noise, making it impossible to show up late without everyone staring.
He came in looking at his feet, feeling awkward already, probably cursing his mom for deciding it was good idea to “try to find a church” for her little family. She was downstairs, no doubt, anonymously sliding into a back row chair of an adult Bible study that was in a real classroom where that would be possible…while he was stuck as the momentary center-of-attention for a bunch of strangers.
What could he do? Shutting the noisy door behind him, he lifted his brow just enough to scan the walls for the unlikely familiar face. Hoping to God, I’m sure, for at least a friendly one.
His eyes bounced around the room quickly at everyone elses…until they hit mine, which were staring back at him like he was some interesting zoo animal. That’s when I realized it was Kenneth.
Pause right here. How do I describe all that transpired in that moment? Our eyes had already met, so I couldn’t act like I didn’t notice him. My heart was immature, so I wouldn’t act like I recognized him and was glad he was there. On the contrary, for some reason I felt a sense of invasion. I didn’t say it out loud, but my emotional memory tells me that I was thinking something to the effect, “Who do you think you are? This is my turf. My home. My group. You’re from my other world, and just barely, at that.”
All that, back in that room, caused me to just look away. He had just allowed a glimmer of hope and recognition to ignite his face when he saw mine. The ends of his lips had just begun their journey upward to break the face open with a smile when I interrupted it by turning away. My insecurity in who I was, and my lack of understanding in what our group was supposed to represent as Christ followers, led me to deliver a pretty vicious message to the unsuspecting Kenneth: “I don’t claim you. I don’t want you. You are not welcome.”
That’s when Kenneth just looked down. He looked down and did his best to sit in the closest seat, blend into sheetrock, and be invisible.
It was brutal. Unnoticeable to anyone but us. But brutal.
This story with Kenneth isn’t over, it picks up a few days later back at school. But before I tell you that, let me tell you why I’m telling you.
I told this story a few weeks ago in a sermon I preached to my church family. I never like recounting this story, but have several times over the years to address what we are supposed to be to the world by showing what it isn’t. About 5 days after I shared this, while putting him to bed, my eight-year-old son started asking me a bunch of questions about that story (yes, he was listening).
He asked why I treated Kenneth that way. He asked what about Kenneth made me not like him. He asked what he had done to me to deserve it. He asked what happened to Kenneth in the rest of class? After class? Did the teacher talk to him? Did any of your friends?
I regularly ask my kids when I’m putting them to bed if they have any questions for me about anything at all. I’ve promised that I will always answer, and answer with the truth. So I was doing my best, diligently trying to answer his questions, and quite engrossed in doing so…when he interrupted me with one more. One that got to the heart of the matter…
“Dad, are you about to cry?” he asked as I shared.
“Well, Shade….no…I think I’m okay,” I replied.
Then he shook the earth. He said, “Because I am.”
I stopped cold to take in what my son was experiencing, having heard this story about his dad. His dad who speaks of love, coaches love, tries to love…especially the hurting, the lonely, and the outcast. His dad. Hurting someone. So brutally. What’s he supposed to do with that?
I took a deep breath. I turned my head on the pillow and looked at Shade, and sure enough a tear was welling up in the eye that I could see as he stared at the ceiling.
“Shade,” I said, “will you forgive me for treating Kenneth that way? I am so sorry.”
It would be beautiful if the story ended right here and he just said “yes,” and then threw our arms around each other, prayed, and went to bed with satisfied spiritual smiles on our faces. But that’s not what happened.
Instead of forgiving me effortlessly, he looked back at me, maybe a little hopeful about my reconnecting to my remorse, but mostly needing to stay in his own…that I have caused.
He said, “I don’t like making people look down.”
I agreed. I still don’t know if he was reflecting or preaching.
“Yes, dad, but can you find Kenneth? Do you know where he lives? Call him! Tell him you’re sorry! Make sure he’s okay!”
With sadness, I told him that I didn’t know where he lived, or even where he went to high school. I don’t even know his last name.
Then, sounding half-desperate, have authoritative, he exclaimed, “Find out!”
I told him I would try.
And I have. I’ve dug out my old Spring Woods Junior High annual and scanned every single picture of every student in the whole school. No Kenneth. I told him, but Shade and I are still working this out together. What can I do?
I’m proud of his sense of (in)justice. His determination that love should “find out!” His belief that love can. I don’t want to disappoint. This part is still playing out…
But back at school, in PE class, I walked into the gym on some kind of “free day”. There were a bunch of guys already in the gym throwing the football around, actively engaged with some sort of game that made it awkward for me to just jump in and participate. So I sort of made my way to a gym wall, wishing I was out there in the action. I scanned the crowd of guys out there, I’m sure with a look of hope and anticipation, hoping one of them would see me and say, “C’mon, Brian!”
A guy did see me…it was Kenneth. The tables were now overtly turned. The shoe was firmly on the other foot.
He saw me alright, and my desire to join in. He had the ball in his hands when our eyes met. I looked down. He motioned to the other guys to hold on as he started running my way.
“Payback time,” I remember thinking. Shuddering, really. He didn’t just look away like I did in this, his moment of retribution. He was coming over armed with his upper-hand to really make me pay. I deserved it and I knew it. I was brutal.
I saw his feet planted in front of me, and when I looked up, I saw a huge smile and the offer of the football.
“You wanna play a game of catch?” he asked, with a kindness and accent of some sort that I’ll never forget.
I was astonished. I couldn’t believe my ears. I had so clearly communicated rejection to this guy. So clearly begrudged him. So clearly denied him when it was in my power to offer friendship and belonging.
And he returned it with love. In a powerful, only-in-junior-high sort of way, Kenneth was offering Christ to me.
I made him say it again, even though I had heard him clearly, by saying, “What?” I just couldn’t believe my ears. I wanted to hear it again.
And he said it again. Tehn I took the ball, and a place on the floor, among brothers-for-a-moment, all because of Kenneth.
I’m happy to say that my life is now made up, almost exclusively, of finding “Kenneth’s” and not ever again, ever, with my beloved son as my witness, ever, with God helping me, never, ever…making them look down.
Now I know the joy that Kenneth felt back then. The joy of giving life away.
I’m sorry, Kenneth. Forgive me.