Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Damascus Road Moment

My recent retirement has given me the opportunity to spend time doing projects in our town park. Having served on the local park board for some 35 years, I have always enjoyed getting my hands dirty doing voluntary maintenance on equipment and facilities. Performing actual labor is not generally the role of municipal board members, but our lone employee occasionally needs help keeping up with his duties.

When frequent summer rains kept the grass growing, I managed to get one of the older lawn tractors running sufficiently to help with the weekly mowing. On several occasions while riding on the mower, I noticed a group of young people arriving mid-morning with books in their hands, appearing to be Bibles. They would usually sit down on a park bench or under a tree and read.

After witnessing this for a few weeks, I approached a young man sitting alone and asked him if he was doing a Bible study. He said he was part of a non-denominational youth group doing a summer Bible study and this was the final week. They met daily at a local youth center for group lessons and prayer time. Then they would go off on their own to a quiet place like the park and read the Scriptures. In a time where our encounters with youth in the park so often involve vandalism or inappropriate behavior, how refreshing to see a young person reading the Bible. I commended him for setting such a fine example.

Hoping to do a little evangelization, I continued pursuing the conversation. Pointing to our Church across the street, I told him I was Catholic and that we were having a difficult time reaching our young people. He said we were not alone. Teenagers have a difficult time taking direction from well-meaning adults. Judging from the tattoos on his forearm, I suspected he had some personal experience along those lines. I asked him what drew him to Christ, and he told me quite a story!
As a child, he was abused by his father. The only time his parents paid any attention to him was when he got into trouble, which he did frequently. He got involved with drugs. When money was needed, robbing a local convenience store seemed like a good idea. Donning a camouflage jacket and rubber mask, he entered the store one evening armed with a knife. When the clerk refused to open the cash drawer, he panicked and fled on foot. He was soon apprehended and eventually sent to prison where he continued to get into trouble, fights mostly. Shortly after his release earlier this year, his best friend committed suicide. Despondent over the loss of his friend and his own hopeless situation, he decided to end his own life. On his way to hang himself, his knees literally buckled under him. At that moment, he felt the presence of God telling him there was another way. The transformation was almost instantaneous. He turned his life over to Christ.

He told me he was here in the park yesterday meditating. He said he looked at a memorial plaque in the park and saw history. He looked at the trees and saw creation. He looked at the adjacent cemetery and saw resurrection. He said, he then looked over at people around a neighboring business and realized that there was a world out there that was not getting the message. He has now dedicated his life to the church and the great commission. I thanked him for sharing his story with me. I could see the Holy Spirit was at work here, so I left him alone.

Last week, I witnessed another incident involving a boy and his mother. On the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I was again in the park on a warm sunny day. School had started earlier in the week. Some boys were playing basketball on the asphalt court after classes ended. A short time later, a silver mini-van pulled up in a parking area across the field. A woman got out and began angrily shouting to one of the boys at the basketball court. He immediately left his friends and walked toward the woman who was screaming profanities at him at the top of her lungs.

I heard her say, “Why don’t you answer your (expletive deleted) phone?” He remained silent as she repeatedly screamed the question inches from his face. The other boys stood and watched from a distance. She proceeded to take his cell phone away from him, threw it on the ground and stomped on it until it was in pieces. At that point, she yelled at him to get in the van, which he did without a word, and they drove off.

Concerned for the young man’s well being, I asked one of the other boys who he was. He didn’t know the mother’s name, but the boy’s name was Ricky, and Ricky was having a bad day. He got into a fight in school, got kicked off the football time, had been smoking pot, and lying to his parents and coaches. I got the feeling even his friend thought Ricky had it coming! He added, “My brother is going to get it when he gets home too, but not in public.” I smiled and thanked him for the information.

While Ricky may have been deserving of reprimand, the manner in which his mother handled the situation was troublesome. Might this be another case where a young man instigates trouble to get attention? Losing one’s temper in a profanity-laced outburst only exacerbates an already bad situation. Handling problems in this immature way is a learned behavior that can be passed on to the child. Parental conduct modeled on guests of the Jerry Springer show is not going to mold a child into a mature responsible adult.

When I see young people getting into trouble in our community, I am often quick to blame lack of parental involvement. After my encounters in the park, I am led to wonder whether misapplication of parental involvement may be more accurate. Raising a child is not easy. Most training is done on the job. Children will not respect a parent who screams obscenities at them, and they will likely repeat such behavior with their own children someday. Not every one will experience that life-changing instantaneous knee-buckling encounter with God. That is why it is important for all of us to be good role models, not only for our own children, but for others who may not find one at home.