Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Loving the Hard to Love

I was just talking to a friend who is doing her best to help a child (and doing a great job, by the way) who is one of those that it is both easy and hard to love. You know the one. He can't sit still in his chair at school, and teases other kids without mercy. She's the one who will look you right in the eye and defiantly do something she knows she shouldn't, and then look to see what you'll do with the hint of a smile playing at her lips. It's the boy you reprimand as kindly as you can who looks you straight in the eye and says “I'm gonna kill your guts!” in a way that scares you just a little. Or a fragile redhead who is dirty and smells like urine and cigarettes.

You are their neighbor or their teacher or their babysitter or their aunt. And you want to love them, you know they need the love, but it's so much work and you just don't think you're really making a difference anyway.

You're wrong.

That girl who won't participate in class because she's so shy, and no matter what you try, she ignores you? That was me. Or the boy who sits on the same chair every week and growls at anyone who comes close, often following his mean faces with his mean fists. I knew him. Or how about the boy who clowns around, distracting the other children from every single sentence you try to utter? He might have been one of mine. Or the class that has driven away teacher after teacher after teacher with their abhorrent behavior? And now they are asking you to teach it? I've both been a member of that class, and taught it.

What do you do?

Well, we all know that
you follow the example of the Savior of us all, who loves us fully and deeply including all our thorns in the flesh. The Son of God who spent his time with the “least of these”. The people no one else wanted. The children described above. You invite them into your arms for hugs and they push away from. You welcome them into your homes, even though sometimes you dread it, because they need to see that the world can be different from the one they know. You pick out every good thing they do and praise it, and let them hear other people hear you praise them so they know they have value. You stand up for them, pray for them, advocate for them and learn that some things don't look much like love in return, but is love nonetheless.

Here's my example. I hope you learn from my mistakes, the way I did. I taught a Primary class of 17 nine/ten-year-olds for two years. Only one boy was inactive and everyone knew his situation, feared his mother and had never met his father. He had beautiful dark eyes and chestnut hair. I thought if any one ever wanted to paint Jesus as a nine year old, he'd be the perfect model, except for the scruffiness I guess.

During that time one of my goals was that whenever a child missed class, I would take them a treat or a handout or mail them a card that said I missed them. Many weeks, he was the only child I'd visit because he was the only child that hadn't attended. During my early visits, he was sullen, cautious and flinched at my slightest movement. His mother tolerated my visits, but I worried he might be punished for the interruption. She didn't look happy.

But then one day he started to come to church. And he brought his little brother. (I didn't even know he had one.) He came in a light blue suit, coat and tie, and his grimy gym shoes. The clothes were a couple sizes too big and dingy like they'd come from a thrift store, but he was obviously proud of them. He sat right next to me every Sunday. Sometimes he would participate in class, and other times he would be the constant distraction that was the source of my Sunday afternoon headaches.

But he was coming! That was something. And I kept visiting him every week too, because I thought he might not know that I only visited those who hadn't come the previous time. I wanted him to feel loved. He responded with enthusiasm and love in return. Often he was grubby, his hair wild and uncombed. Sometimes he didn't smell that great. But I came to know he loved me. And he loved learning about the gospel, albeit not always reverently. And if he saw me, say, at the grocery store, he would yell my name and wave his gangly arms until I saw him and smiled. I felt like a celebrity in his world. That's how I knew that he knew I loved him.

Then one Sunday he wasn't there. I tried to visit all week, but no one would answer the door. His mom intimidated me. A lot. So the next couple of weeks I just left a note or mailed a card. Nothing. I asked the other kids. They only knew he was getting in fights in the neighborhood, and that he covered them in spit wads while they played outside.

It was a big class.
His mom scared me.
Their phone was disconnected.
Maybe he was just sick.
I was busy.
All valid excuses, but excuses nonetheless. And I am not proud of them, even though I made them.

In what felt like the space of a breath, a few months had gone by. I was seeing less and less of the family, and feeling less and less confident about my efforts. I saw myself giving up, and I didn't like the way it looked.

Finally I'd had enough of my weak and slothful self and I got in my car and I went to their house and I knocked on the door. It took a minute, but both boys answered. Immediately my eyes went to the chaos of the room in which they stood, and I could hear loud TV and the mother in the back room giving someone a piece of her mind via telephone. The boys ducked their heads, as though ashamed. I was more ashamed of myself than they could ever be of themselves.

“Chris,” I said, trying to figure out what to say. “I've missed you!”

Still his head hung as he studied his bare feet on the barer carpeting. I took a breath and was about to say something else, when he looked up and said “I'm sorry I haven't been coming to church but my shoes got too little and I don't have any to wear.” I can't imagine the courage it took to divulge such a thing. I hugged them both and told them I'd be right back.

Within the hour I had several bags of clothing, including shoes for both boys and that was that. Even their mother became my friend. The boys came every week for that year and the next.

Can you imagine how I felt, being the person that was called to love him, (he who had been thought of as being hard to love) and that he missed out on so much because I didn't bother to find out whether or not he needed shoes?

After that second year, the family moved, and I am not sure whether he stayed active or not. They didn't keep in touch. But I do know, that while he was in my care, he knew he was loved and that life could be much different that the grimy, small one he lived in the tiny trailer he grew up in.

Now the question: What will you and I do differently for that hard-to-love child today? You know the one I mean...