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Category: Character

People

02

I’ve worked with youth for a long time now, and as fun and rewarding as the job can be, it’s often just work. Hard work.

Like the time – while teaching in a public school – that I returned from lunch to find that a student had broken into my classroom and urinated on another student’s project. Like the time one student hacked into another student’s school network account in order to alter a book report and leave a collection of threatening images. Like the time a student lied to me – in the face of four witnesses and a mountain of physical evidence – claiming he knew nothing about the broken lock, the ruined (and stinking) project, the compromised account, the death threats.

Sometimes you face a student whose will is stronger than your own. Sometimes you just feel stuck. Sometimes you think about a life where people treat each other with respect and wonder whether you’re in the right field of work, whether there might be enough time to go back to college and start over. Sometimes you just give up. Call the student’s parents. Ask for help.

Sometimes you find that their job’s even harder than yours. And that they need help too.

It’s in cases like these that I face a decision: 1) get rid of the student or 2) get closer to the student. Because that’s how it is in people-related work. You can get rid of the people. Or you can get closer to them. I don’t know of any other way to solve people problems.

And I wanted to get rid of the kid. That would have been easier. Simpler. Cleaner. But I’ve learned that you never really solve the problem that way. There’s always another student – even more creatively destructive than the first. So I’ve developed a philosophy of work with one important boundary. There is no such thing as a throw-away person.

Which is where the work comes in. If there are no throw-away people, then I have to figure out how to connect with the people I’d like to throw away.

In one case, I might have given a student a roll of paper towels and a bottle of Windex to clean up a project as best he could. In another case, he and I and his parents may have spent several afternoons negotiating a long-term behavioral contract. Those parents might have started having me over for dinner once a week for good food, a TV show or two, and regular conversations about how things were going in the classroom. Over time, it’s possible that I actually started to like that student.

It’s also possible that as the student grew up, we became friends.

There was a Bible quiz program in which he helped coach a team of younger boys. There was a work trip to the Dominican Republic. There was the time when he left college to volunteer in a drug rehabilitation program in Mexico, using his language skills and his limited medical training to help desperately poor people with serious addictions. I was proud of the work he was doing and of the person he was becoming.

It’s in times like these that it’s tempting to think the hard work is done, that now’s the time to enjoy the fruit of that earlier labor.

But the work’s never really done.

Sometimes you hear from the wife of a friend. Or see a newspaper article with that friend’s name. Or get asked to speak at a funeral.

Which is a completely different kind of work. Though the results are similar. I felt stuck (and a little bit lost). I thought – ever so briefly – about a life where I wouldn’t have to get close to people, a life where I wouldn’t have to lose them, a life where I wouldn’t have to hurt.

Unfortunately, my philosophy of work has another important boundary. There is no such thing as a throw-away experience.

Which is where the work comes in. If there are no throw-away experiences, then I have to figure out how to connect with the feelings I’d rather not have. I have to learn how to face into the experiences that bring suffering and pain. I have to learn how – each day – to keep moving forward in the work to which I’ve been called. To trust that I’m being shaped in ways that are shaping others. To know that this hard work is work worth doing. And to hope – always to hope – because there’s no other way I know to keep on going.

Sometimes, though, even that’s not enough, and the only thing that really helps is to call that friend’s parents. Because they need help too. And the work isn’t really mine.

It’s something we do together.

And to hope – always to hope – because there’s no other way I know to keep on going.

Reunion

02

I went to my 20-year high school reunion this summer. And it was weird. How little had changed from what I remember.

Except my memories.

They’re almost all wrong.

At dinner, for instance, we watched a video Bryce’s dad took at our graduation ceremony.

There was prayer. The reading of scripture. Two sermons. A Christian pop song.

It was religious.

I’ve shared stories about what it was like. The awards. The people. The pranks. But the commencement on that video wasn’t much like the ceremony I remember.

I was sitting next to Rachel at the end of our row. I had a red plastic squirt gun I surreptitiously utilized every time anyone went up to or came down from the stage. Lots of wet spots on black robes.

So it was the real thing.

But it felt fake.

I just hadn’t remembered how Christian my class once was.

Then, as the video played, I did a mental survey of the room. Many of those who’d been active in church no longer are. I wondered why.

One said this: “If church were a place where I was allowed to ask questions, I’d probably still be there.”

Another wrote that he was disillusioned by the mismatch between what faith shouldn’t do but does and what it should do but doesn’t: “Religion, church, spirituality, whatever you want to call it often has a way of turning people into us and them. I would hope that something so great would turn us into we.”

Yet another, watching his younger self on film, just shook his head. I didn’t get to ask what he was thinking.

Since that night, I’ve wondered why I’m still at church (other than for the paycheck). I’ve come up with a few things so far:

I want to normalize doubt for those who might otherwise feel abandoned by God and by their community. I want to encourage serious questions that challenge our thinking and open up opportunities for growth. I want to be part of a community that uses faith as a tool for transformation (never as a weapon).

And I hope.

That 20 years from now.

Some former student.

Watching graduation reruns.

Might ask herself why she’s still at church.

And think of people who weren’t afraid of her questions, people who loved her because of (not in spite of), people who inspired and encouraged and modeled for and listened to and learned from …

That she would think of so many people.

And that one of them might be me.

I want to be part of a community that uses faith as a tool for transformation (never as a weapon).

Nameless

02

I saw my first pornographic image before I was in kindergarten.

We were on the way to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. We’d stopped for gas, and while Dad checked the oil, Mom sent me to use the bathroom.

There was a picture. Torn from a magazine. Taped to the wall. The photo – a woman with hair down to her knees – seemed sad and alone. Silent. Staring out into the space of that darkened stall, the ragged yellow edges of her world.

I washed my hands.

Outside, I told my parents I’d seen something bad. And as we drove away, I wanted to know why. Where were her clothes? Why did someone take that picture? What did it mean? What was her name?

Although most of that conversation has been lost to time, I remember one point that my parents made: the woman in the picture had done what she ought not to have done. She’d taken off her clothes. For attention. For money. To make others think she cared.

That woman was a liar.

I wasn’t old enough to argue. Didn’t know how to put into words what I felt was true. But I did know this: I’d seen the picture. And that woman’s eyes – staring into mine – weren’t full of pride or desire.

They were afraid.

Now, more than 30 years later, I can still see that picture. I carry it around in my head. From time to time, I think about that image – the things we do, the things we do to each other. And the truth is, my parents might have been right. That woman might have been a liar. She may have been greedy, selfish, and shameless. She might not have cared for anybody but herself.

And she might not have really been afraid.

People, after all, are complex.

But if I could go back in time to my five-year-old self, I think I know what I’d ask my parents in the car, on the road to my grandparents’ house: Who took that photo? Who paid the woman? Who printed the picture? Who tore it out and taped it to the wall?

How do you know she’s a liar?

And if my five-year-old self had met the woman instead of her picture.

I think I’d just want to know her name.

But if I could go back in time to my five-year-old self, I think I know what I’d ask my parents in the car, on the road to my grandparents’ house

PO Box 751 . Newberg OR 97132-0751