On this last day, I want to return to that boy that I knew, the one with all the hang ups about who he was and what he wanted, the one I gave you several snapshots of on Monday.
I want to let you know what happened to him because, he's not that same boy anymore and he's not the same boy because he came to know that God loved him in a way that was deeper, more lasting, and more freeing than the approval he was desperately looking for from his friends, or even from himself, the approval that he had thought would bring him wholeness and integrity. Here's how it happened.
By the time that he was in ninth grade, the boy that I knew was riding pretty high in some ways and doing pretty well at winning that approval he wanted. He did very well in school, he did very well on the football field and on the basketball court and he did very well in the lunchroom. One of his chief skills in that last arena was his quick wit and sharp tongue – something that comes as little surprise to those who still know him. Particularly, this boy that I knew wasn't afraid to go anywhere with a joke, especially a sarcastic one or one that took somebody else down a few notches. In fact, that was probably his best trick.
At the school the boy that I knew attended, they didn't have morning prayer like this. Instead, they used to have a little longer chapel service once a week. This boy that I knew was one of the ones who liked to sit in the back of that chapel and make jokes about the speaker. I suppose some of them were probably even pretty funny. He sure looked like he was having fun, this boy that I knew. And at the very least, the jokes kept him safe from having to take anything seriously.
Once a year they had a whole week where a special speaker came in and they had chapel every day – which was OK as far as the boy that I knew cared, because it mixed things up a bit. And one time they even had basketball player come in.
But this time, this time. Oh my gosh, they got a real dork. He must have been 6'7”. He wore plaid short-sleeve shirts, had a ridiculous mustache and was, worse than all of that, the brother of the boy's English teacher. And he had an autoharp.
How many of you know what an autoharp is? Well, it's just about the uncoolest instrument you could possibly imagine playing in front of a group of high school kids. It's this big board with strings and keys like a piano that you strum like a guitar. What the heck is that??? But he brought his autoharp and he brought his wife, who had a bad haircut, and they sang songs together while he played his autoharp.
This was rich material for the boy that I knew. This was going to be fun, he thought, sitting in the back, sniping from the pews. It was almost too easy. He was so uncool it almost wouldn't be fun to make fun of him. Maybe we should throw tomatoes, the boy that I knew thought.
And then he started out by reading some kind of Christian children's stories – something about sled dogs. The boy that I knew was shocked. This was ridiculous. Laughable. It wasn't even entertaining. “Oh my gosh. Stop talking!” he thought. “Let me out of here, for God's sake. I'm going to go absolutely freaking insane if I have to listen to five more minutes of this!”
But as the week went on, the boy that I knew grew quieter and quieter.
Some of the kids around him started listening and discussing what the man with the autoharp was saying. Discussing it! At lunch! Why??? Some of those people were even guys he played football with. Seniors he respected and whose respect he had thought he wanted. Then the boy himself started to listen. He started to realize that he himself was getting angry, defensive. He wanted to verbally assault the man. He wanted him to leave.
The problem was that that the man with the autoharp started getting into his head, making a weird kind of sense. He began to see that the man with the autoharp probably knew that he was sitting in the back laughing and didn't even care! Didn't even care! How dare he! How dare he not care what the boy that I knew thought of him!
Then the man spoke of the love of God, and he spoke about the brotherhood and courage of those who followed God. He spoke of high school kids he knew who had traded their dead ends for real purposeful action, who were making a difference in their communities, their churches and their schools. He invited everyone to join them, to help change the world.
And suddenly the boy that I knew saw all and knew himself for what he was – sitting in the back row making jokes, tearing down his friends with biting sarcasm to advance his own pride and insecurity, picking on the weak and defenseless. And even worse, he saw himself left out of whatever it was the man in the autoharp was talking about, left out of something he suddenly wanted in on.
At the end of the week, there was a chance for people to come to the microphone and talk about the week. The boy that I knew wanted to get up and say something profound, to tell everyone that they should listen to the man with the autoharp. But when he got to the microphone, all he could say was “I'm sorry.” He couldn't say any more. He just broke down crying. But he was pretty sure everyone knew what he meant.
The life of the boy that I knew didn't change overnight, but it has never been the same either. The boy that I knew turned a corner that week.
And when I have morning prayer next semester, I'll tell you the rest of the story.