I took a deep breath as I stepped off the stage and out of the lights, disentangling my microphone. I had just finished telling the story of Peter walking on water to my Sunday school class — and it went surprisingly well considering I forgot to prepare the lesson until the day before. As another leader took the stage to lead the kids in songs I stood at the back of the crowd and sighed, exhausted as I always am after trying to keep 100 kids engaged for 20 minutes.
“I can’t believe I have to stay for two services. I hate this!” I turned to find the source of the voice, a first grade boy a few feet away who was staring at me with narrowed eyes.
Kids stay for both services if they have a parent helping at one of them — at the info desk, handing out programs, directing parking. Kids that stay for two services always have a bit of a tougher of a time because they have to hear the same story twice, sing the same songs twice, do the same small group twice.
I may be good at telling Bible stories on stage, but my weakness in kids ministry is definitely unruly kids and discipline challenges. The attitude of this boy was clearly one of I’m testing you, what are you going to do about it?
I started with an attempt at redirection and re-engagement. “When I’m frustrated, I like to sing” (which is true, and conveniently what the rest of the room was doing right then) “and dancing helps get my wiggles out.”
It was a stretch, and I could see in his glare and posture that he wasn’t going to fall for it. Besides, there was something in his demeanor that said this wasn’t just a kid having a bad day. Okay. Distraction, then. “I like your hat.” It was ball cap, black and white plaid.
“My dad sent it to me.”
Sent. Dad wasn’t at home. “That’s nice. Where did he send it from?” Did he live in another state? Was he deployed?
For the first time he broke my gaze and turned away, glaring into the noisy crowd of kids and leaders singing along to a video. “I don’t want to tell you that.”
Jail, I thought. It’s not the first kid I’ve had in class with a parent in prison. I remember once sitting at a table full of kids coloring pictures who were talking about their moms, and one girl’s lip trembled as she said, “My mom’s… in jail.”
“That’s okay, you don’t have to.” Privacy is allowed. “It’s cool that he sent it to you. Means he’s thinking about you.”
With fire in his eyes, he turned back and yelled, “My dad’s in jail! He’s been in jail 15 times!”
Whether the number was truth or hyperbole didn’t matter. The point was dad had been making bad decisions for a while, and consequences were falling on this kid.
I’m a problem-solver. I’m not great at listening sometimes, jumping straight to wanting to find a solution. If a friend tells me they’re sick I’ll immediately ask about duration and symptoms, mentally trying to come up with a diagnosis. God’s been reminding me that I can’t solve everyone’s problems, and moreso that solving them isn’t the point. Sometimes it’s just about being present with people in their struggles. Here, certainly, was a problem I couldn’t solve. There was nothing I could say or do that would come close to addressing the pain and anger this boy felt.
I looked at him in silence for a few seconds. “That sucks.” What you are feeling is completely valid. I know I can’t fix it, and I’m not going to pretend I can. “That really really sucks.” I meant it from the bottom of my heart.
“I hate my dad so much.”
I sat down next to him. “Do you think your dad hates you, or that he loves you?”
He looked away and exhaled forcefully through his nostrils. “I think he loves me.” Then he turned back and put out his arms in a pleading gesture, dropping his tough guy mask for the first time. “But if he loves me then why does he keep doing things that get him sent to jail?”
Damn, this kid is smart. And asking the real questions that matter.
This week in my Bible study we were talking about conditional grace. We were talking about how God doesn’t offer conditional grace, but as humans we rarely offer anything else. We draw arbitrary lines in the sand. “I’ll forgive you / let you stay in my life if you mess up this much, but no further!” Our lines are in different places, but we all have drawn them somewhere.
One woman in the group talked about a group of friends that judge her daughter for having tattoos. It made her mad that these people gave conditional grace. In the next sentence, she said she couldn’t stand it when parents didn’t take care of their kids. (She’s an interventionist at a low-performing school, so she’s seen a lot of abuse and neglect.) I’m not sure if she realized that she was complaining about conditional grace in one breath and justifying conditional grace with the next.
When she said it I thought about this boy I had met a few days before. I don’t know what his dad is in jail for, but ultimately it stems from brokenness. The kids my friend sees at school who are being abused or aren’t given enough to eat, it ultimately stems from their parents’ brokenness. That’s not an excuse for the things the parents do. It’s just true. And until that brokenness is addressed, nothing will change. And brokenness isn’t something that’s fixed overnight.
One of the things that’s awesome about kids is their honesty. Especially about their own brokenness. As I sat with this boy he told me more about himself. “I have anger problems.” He straight out said those words, and I wondered who had said them to him. As he said them he stared at me with those narrowed eyes, like it was a challenge. Like I’m warning you now, lady, if you want to continue this conversations this is what you’re getting into because this is who I am. He continued, “I lie. And sometimes I steal. I like to beat up my sister.” He told me about the five other people living at his house. He said he’d get sent to his room when he acted out, but that he actually preferred that — being alone in his own space. He kept a treasures chest in his room. He softened a bit when I asked what he kept inside and he told me it was his pocket knives (the ones that hadn’t been taken away from him yet).
As I listened, I was reminded that Christ is the only one that can heal our brokenness. Period. He’s the only one with the power to take the messed up junk in our lives and use it.
But God has given us an opportunity to help in that process of healing and restoration. It seems that everywhere I turn lately I run into verse after verse about loving each other:
“No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4:12)
It all comes back to love. Expressions of love to each other over and over and over and over and over. God showing his love to people through us. Our words, our actions, our listening, our giving of our time and resources. A crop doesn’t come to harvest from one rainstorm or one sunny day. It comes from a good season and from being watered over and over and over and over again. We rarely see results when we try to love people. Each action is just one more cupful of water poured over a thirsty plant that’s still growing.
Part of it is working on erasing the conditional grace lines that we’ve drawn. As long as we have boundaries, we’re going to encounter people who keep pushing them. And the people that most need love usually ask for it in the most unloving ways.
Before I left the room for second service I fished something out of my purse. My pocketknife. I usually keep my purse in the car during church, but for some reason I brought it in today and stashed it in the closet. I went to where this boy was smashing a wall of giant Legos. Normally I might have told another kid to play nicely with the toys, but I decided to ignore it. (Plus those blocks of plastic are nearly indestructible anyway.)
I called him over and showed him my knife. I told him how much I loved my pocketknife, too, and that I take it with me wherever I go. That my big boy cousins always got pocket knives for Christmas when we were growing up and I always wanted one, so I finally went out and got one for myself. I flipped open the scissors and told him they were my favorite part.
“Are those tweezers?” he asked.
“Yup. It has tweezers. And a toothpick. And a little knife over here.” I pulled each part out in turn.
“That’s cool,” he grunted.
I put it in my pocket and turned to go. “I’m glad I got to meet you today. You’re a cool kid.” And you taught me something. He huffed and turned back around to kicking the Legos.
One cupful of water at a time, I thought. I hope I have a chance to give you buckets and buckets.