Thursday, November 16, 2006

Loving Lampwick Larry

Before getting to the point a little context might be nice. I live, work, and worship in Savannah, Georgia. My home is modest, my employer gigantic, and my church small. It is within the confines of the latter that this story takes place.

As is the case with most churches in America, people attend for a variety of reasons. And like most churches in America, those reasons are sometime noble, sometime ignoble. For many of our young people their reason for coming is because Mom makes them. Not Dad...Mom! I hate to say it but the church at large seems to be severely lacking in male attendance and influence. I am speaking of real men, men who are neither cavemen nor croquet players; strong, caring, tender warriors. So, many young people come to church at the behest of their mothers and generally act as though, on the Personal-Agreeability-Scale, the entire affair is on par with sifting cat vomit through their fingers. Our church is no different. For the most part, the young people sit as close to the county line as possible so as to avoid actually hearing the sermon or understanding the songs. And they do their best to talk in muffled tones, attempting to walk the line between disturbing others and actually paying attention. A while back, one young man caught my eye.

Larry* appeared to be a young man of great potential. His smile was wide and infectious. Like most 13 year old boys he had trouble looking people in the eye and speaking up. Nevertheless, for some reason or other, I found that I liked him. Perhaps it was that he constituted something of a challenge for me. He stretched me. Whereas I come from a fairly squeaky clean middle class world, Larry lives in the projects. His father is in prison. He step father can’t decide if he wants to live in the same house as Larry. He dreams of becoming a construction worker or video game programmer but has no real prospects of reaching those dreams. His mother and grandmother exert the major portion of godly influence in his life. They faithfully bring him to church hoping something will grab his attention, but nothing does. Thus, aside from quietly hoping for success, they have no real plan and no real help in seeing this young man down the straight and narrow. And besides, they are women. Larry has no man in his life to mentor, direct, coach, or discipline him. I truly believe that his ideas about God and his future will be shaped by the male leadership he finds, or doesn’t find, in his life. Currently, when he looks around he sees a mom, a grandma, and a church that are uncertain as to how to best deal with him. It seems the best they can do is to hope and pray. I, of course, am all for hoping and praying, but action must be taken sometimes. So a while back, Larry caught my eye, and I began to act.

Larry was headed toward becoming the local Lampwick by dragging the other boys toward their doom on Pleasure Island. So over the course of many moons, anytime I saw those boys talking and I would politely but sternly ask them to be quiet. I would see them moving around during service and sit with them to ensure their respect for the house of God. Once I caught them playing cards and threatened to confiscate them if that immoral and appalling activity did not cease and desist immediately. I played the nice man that will give you a good talking to if you’re not careful. I tried and tried to influence them without driving them entirely out of the church or offending the adults that dared to claim them. But, there was never any real change in their behavior. Nice wasn’t working. So a few weeks ago, my teapot began to whistle.

It was “Homecoming” Sunday when all the old timers and previous pastors return for a celebration of epic proportions. Larry and the Lost Boys took up their usual positions in the very last row and service began. Attendance was high so mobility was limited. However, the ability of this small group of boys to get under my skin wafted unfettered through the sanctuary. It shouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that I was entirely unengaged from the rest of the Homecoming Service and focused almost entirely on those boys, especially Larry. So as soon as the service was over I quickly walked over to Larry, threw caution to the wind and ensuring that all the other boys could hear me I said, “Larry, I love you. I think you have tons of potential and I believe God has a plan for your life if you’ll let him do what he wants to do with you. However, if you don’t start behaving during church, one of these days I am going to drag you outside and beat your ass!” Well, you can imagine the reaction that got from them. I assume they had never heard, nor expected a chaplain to talk like that. Larry froze while the other boys scattered like frightened cockroaches. I got his attention! At the first possible opportunity, Larry slithered away to lick his pride and try to regain his glorious leadership. This being a special Sunday, we engaged in that time honored church tradition…the Potluck. As we ate, I approached Larry’s mother and grandmother and, wanting them to know my heart, told them EXACTLY what I had said to their boy. I kind of expected them to be upset. Grandma looked at me and said, “Thank you. He needs that.” Then his mother told me that he was on parole for taking a knife to school and that his parole officer had mandated that he link up with a mentor of some sort. Imagine my surprise when she asked if I would fulfill that role. We talked a bit and I noticed that Larry was nowhere to be seen, so I went looking for him. I found him a short while later hiding behind a brick retaining wall in back of the church. Understandably he was not in the mood to talk to me…but too bad! I sat down in the dirt in front of him and engaged him. He said he was mad because I had “cussed” at him and embarrassed him. “Good”, I thought. Upon further interrogation he told me that in his 13 year old world right and wrong are defined by what is fun. So if it’s fun…it’s right. I explained that I really did love him…too much to stand by and watch him do wrong and that I would drag him into the octagon if necessary to keep him from running head first into the arms of hell. And it wouldn’t be fun!

In the weeks that followed, I continued to ride Larry, asking him to sit with me and my family during church, talking to him about school, and trying to get him to look at me when we talked. Then yesterday something happened. My perfect wife picked Larry up after school and dropped him off at my office and for the next two hours I introduced him to the military, the vehicles, the helicopters, the weapons, the pluses and minuses. Not in an effort to recruit him, but to show him that the world is bigger than the projects and that it’s all available to him, should he desire to work for it. And that recalcitrant, rebellious, angry young man walked and talked with me and never stopped smiling. It was amazing. The veneer cracked. Finally I took him home and walked him to his door in the projects, knowing he was afraid to walk alone. After I got in my car I looked toward his apartment and noticed him in the window…waving…smiling…and looking me in the eye.

* Larry’s name has been changed to protect his anonymity and my fanny!