Friday, March 20, 2009

Making People Look Down


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.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Through the Dark Mountains…

Shades Rock Story

There was a man. He liked rocks. He was walking. He saw a big rock. He sat on it and he picked a few pieces. The rock started to roll. He jumped off.

"I am sad," said the man.

"What is wrong?" said another man.

"I made a rock mad," said the man.

"Too bad," said the other man, "Will you be ok?"

"Yes," said the man.

"Have fun!" said the other man, and they played together, so the sad man was happy again and they found another rock. This time he did not pick pieces off the rock.

They lived happily ever after.

- A story written by my young son Shade, who's birthday is today

This past Sunday morning I spoke in front of a large crowd of Christ followers. I spoke of the heart’s desires…life, light, love...and where they each cross with eternity.

Simply put, I spoke of Heaven.

This was part 4 of 6 teachings based on the book Epic by John Eldridge, which is his summary of the "Story of God" found in the Bible.

My son Shade wrote the little story above and gave it to his mother and me a couple of weeks ago, out of the blue, and for no particular reason. When I saw the words, "They lived happily ever after," I asked him if I could read his story on the week that I would speak on the "happily ever after" found in Scripture...Heaven.

He said yes.

Drinking WaterClimbing Rock WallRacing closup

So this past Sunday morning, as my friend Doyle led our church in lively song about Heaven, I sat next to my son with my little Bible in hand, and his little story-page tucked in it. Shade saw it.

"Is today the day you're reading my story?" Shade asked. I told him it was.

He said that was cool, and then sat for a while as we sang, with a somewhat distant look. After a few minutes, he grabbed my Bible and pulled the story-page out. He looked up at me and boldly said, "I wanna read it to ‘em."

I'm sad to report that the words "Are you sure? In front of everyone?" leapt out of my mouth before I realized how discouraging they sounded. As unintentional as it was, I was highlighting the fear in his idea more than the courage.

"Yes," he said, with a tone and downcast eyes that betrayed that my words had shaken him. I tried to recover with the excitement that I was really feeling about the idea…

Pause. A few days ago as I was reading something, Shade came to me with seriousness in his eyes. "Dad?" he said to me, "I think I'm supposed to tell stories to people. How can I get started doing that?"

Close up

He already had some ideas: "Mom's about to start teaching Callie's class, maybe I could help her if she needed it. I could tell some stories, you know, from my life and stuff that would teach the kids about how to treat people. Or I could tell that story about you and Kenneth* (*I’m working on a post with that one) that you told." I couldn't have been more excited. When he saw my approval, he added, "Maybe I can help you sometimes when you're tellin' stories at church." I told him that would be a great idea.

Little did I know that in that pew this past Sunday morning, without any help from me, mind you, he was seeing an opportunity tucked in the pages of my Bible. His young heart was putting this moment together with what he had already identified as something he is “supposed” to do…and all on his own he reached for it. That little bit of silence between his noticing that I was using his story and his asking to be the one to tell it contained that all-too-familiar struggle of the heart between fear and courage. And isn’t that the struggle that always comes when the opportunity of doing what we feel called to do presents itself?

Shade and Dad at cross

Back in the church pew, now, Shade's whole demeanor had changed because of what he had volunteered for. “How long?” he kept asking, nervously. As a preacher, I know the anxiety of which he speaks. And since I was in my own little weekly anxious world, I was little more help to him than to say, "In a minute! Shhh!"

Shortly before time for me to head up to the microphone, Shade grabbed my Bible again. He folded up his story-paper and put it back into the pages and set the closed Book down next to me. I leaned over to him, "Have you changed your mind?"

"I really want to do it, but I'm afraid. You just do it," Shade said. This time, his head-hanging was betraying the decision not to do it. He wanted to.

We were in the final approach. Doyle was worshipping through the song that also served as my cue. I knew that I was just about to need to go, but I finally tuned in completely to my boy's heart, and helped him delay the decision.

"Okay, buddy. Listen. I'm going to speak a little bit, and then pray. Right after I pray, I'm planning on reading your story. When I finish praying, as I'm introducing your story, I'll look at you. If you shake your head no, I'll read it. But if you nod yes, I'll call you up. Okay?"

Talking to Dad

He seemed relieved to have a little more time to decide (aren't we all?). But also relieved that there was a deadline, a time when he had to decide, and his dilemma would be over, one way or the other, and in the past (we often need that too, don't we?).

I added that he can be proud either way...that he is telling a story be it through his written or spoken words (That was my way of saying, "Be at peace, son. You are free. And you are already victorious. And I'm already proud of you”). I then did for him what he and all my kids do for me every week...I prayed in his ear for him and his "sermon".

So, I got up there, made some introductory remarks, and then bowed to pray.

I can only imagine what was going on in my son's head down there on that pew as I prayed. He knew that I would look at him right when it was over...that it would be decision time…the moment of truth.

I wonder how loudly the fear was speaking? You don't have to do this, Shade. You already wrote the story. It's enough for you to have it read by him. Just say no and the fear and nervousness is gone. No one will ever know the difference.

I wonder how loudly the courage was speaking? You don't have to do this, Shade, you get to. You already have identified a sense of desire for telling stories. You've already asked the really good question of how to go about getting started on that. Here it is before you. Right here. Right now. Don't be afraid. Just say yes. Walk into it.

Spider Man

I raised my head from the prayer, unfolded the notebook paper, and spoke the words "My son wrote a story..." as I looked over to my left to see the nodding head of my courageous son.

And with a secret, fatherly pride in my heart, I gladly continued my sentence with, "...a story that he is going to come up and read for you."

Afterwards, I went on making the points I wanted to make that related to the lesson, but I might as well have went on home. This was enough for me today. More than enough. A taste, methinks, of the very subject I was speaking of…Heaven.

The church family, loving family that they are to me and my family, applauded my son as he finished and sat down. I love them for that. For doing out loud what I was doing inside. Thanks to all of you who are reading this...for that.

At lunch, I spoke to my wife across the table within earshot of Shade. "Hey Babe, wasn't that awesome how Shade read his story this morning?"

"It was way awesome. And it was such a great story. I'm so proud of him for being so brave," she responded.

"Through the dark mountains," Shade interrupted.

He had my undivided attention. "'Through the dark mountains'?” I asked. “What do you mean by 'through the dark mountains'?"

You and I both know what he meant. He used his words, but he went on to explain the “dark mountains” of fear. The dark mountains beyond which are our truest heart’s desires…life, light, and love. They are the dark mountains that all must go through if they intend faithfulness to a calling. They are the dark mountains that are only conquered by walking courageously into your Shade did that morning. And I might add that it is a particularly special sort of courage at work when you have the option not to go, but go still.

As it turns out, Shade had read a story at school that had captured this simple, but deep, quandary common to us all. He had an image and a vocabulary with which to explain the feelings he was feeling, the battle he was inwardly fighting, and the opposition that stood between him and the life that his heart is longing for.

And this past Sunday morning, he went walked into them. The result? Yes, there was applause, affirmation, encouragement, approval, and even usefulness. And those are all great rewards when we go through the dark mountains, but beyond all that is the even sweeter satisfaction of knowing there is life on the other side of them. I'm not speaking of survival here. Mere survival is available on this side of the dark mountains. But to the that brings joy and satisfaction and adventure...that is only available for those precious few who go through.

Through the Dark Mountains.

Jumping in pool

Happy Birthday, Buddy!