“Who are you going to jump?” I asked sharply. “Look me in the eye and tell me.”
He couldn’t do it. We kept talking in circles, getting more and more frustrated. There was big talk earlier about it, about banding together with friends to beat up some kid. I had confiscated a stick that he had been brandishing while making not-so-subtle threats, and he was relentless in demanding that I give it back. The three of them had been toying with me all night: stealing cookies (literally stuffing packs of them in their jackets), lying to my face, messing around with the other kids, and now talking again about bullying someone.
They were elementary school kids, but I wanted to throw them out of the house. Long before I moved in, my roommates had started a “milk and cookies” ministry: every Monday night, they would have free hot chocolate and cookies, an open house to play games and hang out, and a short Bible study. It became a routine ministry, though every week was unpredictable and often chaotic. Last week I walked one kid home for bad behavior, and we have temporarily banned others from returning as punishment. I consider myself a seasoned youth worker from years of church ministry with hundreds of middle school kids. But that was in the suburbs, and here I have found that there has been a learning curve to doing something as simple as giving out milk and cookies, to just being a good neighbor.
This was part of that curve, and it left me uneasy. Most of it was probably just talk: a schoolyard fight that would fizzle on its own. But I thought about the rat-a-tat of distant gunfire I hear occasionally, and am reminded of the frequent trauma codes called in the hospital for vengeance slashings and shootings. I wondered if this was where such things began, and part of me despaired that there was anything I could share, anything I could teach them.
So I tried to delay them with questions and wheedling and stern talking to’s. I left other minor scuffles and requests for help unattended while trying to contain the unfolding drama. After a time, they tired of me and started picking on M, another boy. M was older than they, but “attracted trouble”, as my roommate had once described. I think that meant he was an easy target for bullying. In fact, last week M had confided in me about a recent suspension for fighting, which I now suspected was from fending off kids like the ones who were circling around him now. I knew how he felt; it had happened to me often enough before.
My roommate came home and shortly thereafter threw the troublemakers out. The house was immediately quieter, and M followed me back to the kitchen to help me cook. Last week he peeled a bag of potatoes and had so much fun, craved the attention so much that he begged me for something more to do. He balked a bit when I handed him the recipe; it took me a while to figure out that he was afraid of reading, despite being in 5th grade, and that all the other kids knew this embarrassing fact already. So I showed him how to brown little chunks of beef, how to measure out oddly-spelt ingredients like thyme and Worchestershire sauce, and how to simmer a stew.
Everyone else left and we heard that it had begun to snow something fierce. M stepped out of the kitchen to peek and came back dejected.
“How’s the snow? You think you can get home okay?” I asked.
“Yeah.” His enthusiasm was muted.
“Are they out there?” I didn’t have to explain whom I meant.
“I’ll drive you home. Don’t worry.” He brightened up and continued stirring the stew.
“You know,” I said, breaking the silence, “I used to get in fights too.” He was surprised. “I lost them all… used to get beat up all the time.” Thoughtful silence. “My sister and I… we used to get pushed around a lot, growing up. When I was your age, in fact. You got any friends?”
“Yeah, a few. One of them betrayed me though.”
“Yeah, me too. Happened to Jesus too, you know. But you know what my mom used to tell me? She would say, ‘Pray for them,’ and I didn’t understand it, but she said, ‘Jesus tells us to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.’ So we did. And you know what happened? Years later, some of those guys came back to say they were sorry, and some of us are friends now. Even on facebook.”
“Really? You have a facebook?” We didn’t talk much after that, but his mood brightened considerably. I drove him home through the bright and fresh snow. The other boys had given up waiting to ambush him and he was happy, even as he unlocked the door to his cold and dark house, his home with no mother or siblings or anyone else to talk to that night.
I came home and found my roommate sitting in the living room with eyes closed, lights off, and his head listing backwards onto the couch. His foot was stirring restlessly as it usually did when he was thinking or praying. “I’m worried about those boys,” he said.
“Me too,” I said. “But you know, I got to share my story with M, how I used to get bullied. Not quite the same thing, but he seemed to be encouraged.”
“Really? Hum.” We sat in darkness for a while, thinking. Then we prayed.
Father, we pray for ____, ____, and ___, that you would work in their lives… and we pray for M, and we thank you… we thank you for these difficulties, because they may lead him closer to you. Amen.
I went up to my room to think and remember. I opened up this computer to read a series of facebook messages that I still had trouble believing were true. This is what I had written to one of those friends I had told M about:
Hey J… Amazing how things change as we grow up… I just wanted to tell you one thing. You may not remember the hellishness that was middle school, but it was pretty miserable for both my sister and myself. One thing we did during those times though was pray for you nearly every day. I mean literally nearly every day; we would sit in the car every morning and pray before walking into that school, usually dreading what social disaster awaited us that day. But my sister really had the heart and desire to pray for you and many of her other classmates. And in listening to her prayers, I began saying my own for you: that you would grow to be a kind and compassionate person, that you would come to know faith, that you would have grace in your life…
I live in a pretty rough neighborhood now… Hardly what most people would call “making it”, and I’m probably not making much difference here. But it’s made me realize that the most important things are the small things and the faithful things. Like those daily prayers so long ago, what matters are not the great and grandiose things we dream of, but the daily elements of grace: learning to live, laugh, and love with gratefulness and deep appreciation. In that sense, you have me beat.
I continue to pray for you, and with great joy. – Dave
He wrote back:
Hey man, it’s all good I know you’re busy. But you have no idea how on point that message is. I do recognize what a jackass I was back then, and a million apologies won’t change that, but I have to thank you for those prayers because I think you unknowingly set a chain of events that may very well have put me right where I am right now. Growing up being the loud mouth brazen individual I was I originally didn’t think much of church or religion in general. But one day it just kind of broke in, out of nowhere at some point in high school. I found myself talking to God and slowly increasing my relationship with him. I always tried to be self reliant so I never really asked for much but it felt right. Then about 3 years ago something very bad happened… I really had no direction to go but down and I went into a downward spiral…that is until the big guy upstairs spoke up. I can’t really describe it, but have you ever felt like you just had a conversation with someone? Like their words are in your head even though its just you in the conversation? I know that sounds crazy but that’s exactly what it felt like. I knew his exact words and exactly what to do. I went from some alcoholically bloated mass lost in a suicidal daze to being human again, almost happy. Not with the situation obviously but the night before I cried my eyes out asking for death to end the misery and woke up ok…and it all happened literally overnight, it was surreal it blew my mind. That very same day a friend of mine who’s a rather harsh state trooper handed me a pocket bible. Someone I’d never expect it from but to this day it still resides in my pocket, falling apart lol but it’s there. The journey since then has been literally what you said, learning to live, laugh, and love with gratefulness and appreciation, regardless of yes my somewhat less than graceful facade lol. Every question I ever had about my faith was answered but I never understood where my appreciation of God came from. As child going to church with my dad I didn’t take it seriously I just went because he made me, and I never understood why just one day Him and I just said I it felt more than me just talking to thin air like it had done before. Long story short Dave, I’m pretty sure your prayers being answered at that random time in high school set forth a chain of events that has today left me very happy, very humble, and very alive. And for that I can’t really thank you enough…
Anyways I’m sorry I keep writing novels man I start typing and it all just comes out haha. That neighborhood sounds rough but I’m sure to the people who you’re helping you’re making quite a difference. One step at a time I suppose. I appreciate the prayers man, I’m a big fan of life now because of it. Take care Dave, -J
What do we truly believe about prayer and the goodness of God? In that moment, the hyper-intellectualism, pervasive cynicism, and endless drivel that characterized so much of my doubting nature was crushed and devastated by the cleverness of God, who demonstrates His mastery over circumstance by transforming years of emotional poverty into a celebration of reconciliation and hope.
In a Hallmark society that worships the power of positive thinking, there is little reason to swallow the bitterness of life and embrace foolishness like the command to love your enemies. And yet that is exactly how the Lord chooses to demonstrate His sovereignty, grace, and hope: through the neglected disciplines of forgiveness, patience, and love. These are his mechanisms for redemption, and I look forward to that day when all the hardships we endure will be known for their salvation.
And Joseph said unto them, “Fear not: for am I in the place of God? But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.” – Genesis 50:19-21
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. – Romans 8