Keys and Love

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I’m taking a break from reporting on my recent publishing venture to speak on another topic close to my heart: love. I suppose it’s safe to say that love is close to everybody’s heart (with evidence of its existence being more visible on some than others). But if you hear anybody talk about love, they usually think of a heart or someone they know personally. An image of something, like a favorite memory, could come to mind as well. Whatever makes you smile, really – be it inside or out – is usually a safe bet to link with the emotion of love.

I’ve heard plenty of talks on this human feeling in my life. My parents told me it was meant to be unconditional (whatever that meant) and that it was a moment of great joy. I immediately pictured Christmas morning when I heard that. That got me excited as a kid, as it did any other child who had the pleasure of experiencing the birth of Jesus in December. A moment is all it was though. Singular and without sustaining power.

Getting older, I began to see love in action – relationships, the Salvation Army, etc. This was beginning to speak to me. What does it mean to truly serve another soul? And is that even a real concept? I wrestled with the notion for a while. The teenage years, especially, were mixed with wondering just what “love” was and stood for. Was it a cheap Disney movie? Or something else entirely? I was hoping it would be the former for some reason.

Making things worse, it was easy to get confused on the topic. For example, a friend of mine in high school came from an especially tough home. His parents were divorced so he lived with his mom during the week and his dad on the weekends. His mother didn’t have a good paying job and his father neglected to help him financially so he had to work from a very young age. But by the time we were 18, he probably had more money than some parents in our neighborhood. Unfortunately, he spent much of his earnings on frivolous things: lots of speakers, stereos, and nice cars – all in an effort to show the world that he was worth more than the hand he was given.

He was highly self-sufficient, walked among several circles, and didn’t take no crap from nobody. He was fun to be around and like so many others, I enjoyed his company too. But his money and political influence weren’t the important parts; no, far from it. You see, my buddy, for all the tough guy imagery and togetherness he put on, he was a sinking ship on the inside. And in the years after high school, he went from place to place, job to job, hoping to reclaim the days where merely putting on a mask was good enough to get by.

The world doesn’t treat people nicely when they wear a false face. Rather than be gentle, the world crushes the mask or it makes the wearer embrace his mask till he becomes a shell. My buddy couldn’t figure this out however and I still mourn for him everyday of my life. Not because he struggles with putting on a mask, but because he can’t find that one thing this post is all about: love. His world on the outside seemed great, but deep within, underneath the layers of self-created barriers and illusionary depictions, he was hollow. Absent. Devoid. Just empty.

Yikes. How did this happen? Blame Mom? Blame Dad?

Had I been more intentional (and more loving, let’s be honest), I would have taken more of an interest in my buddy’s life. I would have stood up for him, invited him over more, but most of all, I would have challenged him more. And when I say challenge, I mean it in the most loving way possible. Challenge him to look inside; challenge him to look at other avenues of life rather than those that are momentarily satisfying; and ultimately challenge him to be a better man. Is that such a hard thing to do? Why yes, it absolutely can be if you’re too scared yourself to know what it is you stand for.

I say these things because of an experience I had this past weekend. Myself and five other colleagues – a mentor and four other young men growing in faith – took a trip to Colorado for a men’s retreat. It wasn’t just a “getaway” though; it was a Christian men’s conference called Ransomed Heart. The author of the popular book, Wild at Heart sponsors a yearly “boot camp” of sorts, where men of all ages can come for a weekend and delve into what it means to be masculine. If you’re thinking this was a lot of “hoo-rah” and burping and farting and talking about sports then you are sorely mistaken. It’s a weekend meant to connect men with something we do a good job of shying away from our whole lives: love and validation. Aside from my five compatriots, there were about 450 other men at this conference in Colorado. Imagine a camp, on the edge of a mountain, high above sea level, overlooking a valley of hills and endless trees and you have a good idea of what it was like. Yes, it was isolating but it was meant to be like that; if God had a backyard big enough for you to get lost in, but still have fun, then this place would be it.

We were told to carry water bottles with us wherever we went. This was due to the fact that one can get dehydrated quickly at such high altitudes. And after walking just a few short yards after getting off the bus, I knew exactly what they were talking about. I was short of breath and desperately in need of a ventilator. This trip was certainly going to test all areas of my manhood – how stubborn I could be, and just how proud I could act without taking a sip of my water bottle. Believe me when I say that I broke down after just a few hours, guzzling h2o down like I’d been stranded at sea. Sad, but true.

But the elements we were presented with was not the most interesting, or the most memorable part, of our trip. For at one of our dinners, serviced in the main hall of the lodge, a young man was brought to our table of six. He was dressed in baggy sweat pants, a black North Face jacket and white sneakers that were too big for his feet. Judging by his facial hair, I guessed him to be around 25-30 years of age. This was about the average age of our troop, minus our fearless leader. Another man stood next to him who then introduced this young buck to us as “Gabriel”. Seeing as how we had an extra seat, this other man (Rick, we’ll say) saw an opportunity to integrate Gabriel with the rest of us.

The group I traveled with consisted of individuals from all walks of life – married, single, engaged, black, white, black mixed with white, and a single leader, Bruce; a man who is just a hair past the half century mark in age. All of us have different works or trades – filmmaking, project management, writing (that’s me, of course), pastoring and even bartending. We were diverse, to say the very least, so the addition of one more equally diverse and compelling soul was no tall order for our table of six.

So when Gabriel joined us, one would think the energy in the room wouldn’t change. Now, if you’ve ever been in a junior high lunch room, then you know how awkward it can be when the “new kid” comes and sits at your table. The most common of reactions is to stick with light conversation. Don’t bring up anything that only the guys in the clique would know and so on. But this wasn’t a junior high lunch table – this was six adult men greeting another adult man at their table. So no problem, right?

Well, we all knew that Gabriel wasn’t like many of the other men at the retreat. His clothing was one tell-tale sign to tip us off, but it was his eyes that carried a very heavy burden with him. Though I had just met this man for the first time, it was not difficult to discern that his young body and mind had been, and seen, some very horrible things in its relatively short time here on Earth. And when it was disclosed that he had spent some prison time somewhere, you can’t help but shudder at what exactly that can mean.

Regardless of what some may think, the news of this revelation certainly shook a few of us at the table, if not just me. It’s a Christian conference, yes, but it’s not a fairy dust with angel wings kind of weekend. These are real people, here among the masses, with real lives and real problems to work through. I’d just like to squash that notion before I go any further. So keeping that in mind, the questions certainly circulated: What had he done? What was he convicted of? And is it safe for him to sit here with us? The judgments and curious eyes moved around the table, but all fears were silenced when our seasoned leader spoke up and simply asked, “How was your trip getting here?” And with that, Gabriel was beginning his initiation.

Gabriel answered, “It was fine” and went about his business. He kept his head low as he spoke, making certain to not break any social boundaries or norms, and he dared not ask anyone to pass something at the table – he just reached his hands out to what was near to him and took what was available. A couple of us asked him a few other questions – where he was from, how he liked the mountains, and what he thought of the food. You know, the really dumb questions that people ask when they’re uncertain how to really get to know somebody new.

But God willing, Bruce, our savvy veteran of the crew, didn’t budge on that front. Call it years of experience, or just plain knowing when to be direct, Bruce asked Gabriel if the group of us could pray for him once the meal was over. Gabriel accepted openly and for the next five minutes, the six of us gathered around Gabriel to pray. Later on, Bruce talked with young Gabriel about his life, where he’d been, and what he’d been through to get where he was.

Many of his responses would shock the naïve of heart and for the sake of keeping Gabriel anonymous in that regard, I won’t go into too much detail. However I will say that it was more than apparent how he’d been dealt a very bad hand for much of his life. An abusive family, abusive relationships, and an abusive lifestyle had left him figuratively and literally scarred – a gash above his left eye was brutal evidence of an untold story that I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear even if he wanted to tell me. But even so, Bruce charged onward – asking questions, investing time, and advising young Gabriel of what steps he needed to take if he were to move forward from the mess he’d been through.

And when that was over, something really intriguing happened. The next day, our group of six gathered for breakfast, much like always, and waited to see who would fill our final seat. Bruce advised that we save it specifically for our new friend, Gabriel, and to our delight, he did not disappoint in showing up. Still sporting the baggy clothes and rough apparel, Gabriel strode in and stood in the back. We waved him down though and brought him back to sit with us.

I was positioned next to Bruce when Gabriel came over to take his seat. He looked tired, much like yesterday, and I’m rather confident that he had slept for about 15 hours straight the day before. Even so, he was visibly weary but seemed more eager to sit with us than yesterday. This was a good sign, but I didn’t know how he’d be after a day of hanging out with us. But my question had to wait for before Gabriel could take a seat, Bruce asked Gabriel to grab a plate from the other table next to him. It had become apparent that we didn’t have enough at ours so we needed one more. It wasn’t a harsh request; just a simple “hey, could you please do me a favor while you’re up?” And to my surprise, Gabriel responded like he had springs in his legs. He turned quickly, picked up the plate and set it on the table. And he did so with a smile. He then sat down next to a few of my other friends, who quickly inquired how he had slept the night before. And conversation ensued from there; warming up, getting more familiar, and not being as closed off.

In that instant, Bruce turned to me, a teary-eyed expression in his face, and said, “Isn’t it amazing how people respond for just a inkling of love and acceptance?”
His comment sank deep within me and stretched itself across my very heart. What Bruce said was absolutely true – we do just about anything to be accepted, to be validated, but most of all, to feel loved. Shortly after breakfast, I was standing next to Bruce once more when he referenced the experience again. He was clearly elated, as were the rest of us, that Gabriel appeared to be in better spirits. When one of the other gentlemen in our group asked Bruce again, he mentioned the quote once more: “we all want to feel loved, even if it seems small.” A thought came to me so I decided to write it down later before I lost it.

If we are all searching for love and validation, then we are all looking for the slightest hint that it’s real so that we may latch onto it. Like a key that is made for a large door, our heart does not always require exuberant displays of affection or immense adoration; we need only a simple act that will open our heart to something much greater.

This experience, I feel, resonates with those words. Sometimes all it takes is a small sign of love, a fraction of selfless caring, to open the doors of one’s heart to a larger universe. In Gabriel’s case, it only required someone to ask, “Hey, how was your drive?” and then go from there. Not belittling him for his past, not disciplining him for wrongs he’s committed or even asking that he reconcile before us if he is to be allowed among us – it was none of these things. Instead, to have an invitation that says, “yes, you are welcome here” is powerful enough to change everything. I believe this gesture, strange as it may sound, means more than people may ever realize. And just as quickly, these same people will dismiss its power just as swiftly as it offers itself. That’s how fast the invite can arrive and then vanish, but its power to affect the heart is immense.

Gabriel was a living example of the invitation at work and his story made me think of my friend, all those years ago, who probably had a similar story now. Why didn’t anyone give him the invitation? Did no one care enough? Was I just too passive a friend to help him when we were younger? A thousand and one questions can leave a person paralyzed with thought but those kinds of questions aren’t important anymore. I saw what Gabriel needed now so dwelling on the past was of no help to him, me, or anybody else sitting at the table that day. The key had been found, the lock was undone and the door was being opened. That’s all that mattered. And that’s all that really matters. Because from then on, there is hope, which is a far better alternative than the alternative itself.

Comments

  1. Josh–thanks for an incredibly challenging and encouraging post. Whoa–good stuff my friend–good stuff…

    • Bruce, you have made more than one of Josh’s publications! Keep up the hard work. Very encouraging to see.

      Josh, keep up your best! It is a pleasure to read and refreshing to be encouraged

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