The neighborhood kids are holding me hostage.
I wanted to write today about how we’re trained to fear getting out of line and yet writing well requires audacity.
I was all set to write and then I realized the story was really about this: as I type this we’re being overrun with screaming, arguing neighborhood kids on bikes. I’d love to snap a picture of them to prove how feral they are, but I’d need permission and I’m pretty sure they have no parents. Or maybe they have one but she isn’t around much.
I’m ashamed to admit I’ve wished for school to start for several weeks. Headphones help, but the problem is more inside me. They’re always in the street in various states of unclothed, and an ever-present reminder that they’re unsupervised and largely unloved. It’s clear in the way they interact, belittling each other, shouting instead of talking, and basically acting like a gang of elementary-age hoods.
I’ve encouraged my girls to avoid them. But almost every day, the 4 wild kids get dropped off at grandpa’s three doors down and the fact that they’re always out there, reminding me I’m not sharing love with them makes me feel like Boo Radley. And not even as brave as Boo, since I haven’t ventured past our gate to talk to them for almost 3 months.
I know I don’t have to do anything. I can work at coffee shops and try to encourage my kids to face life and offer grace in other, less dangerous ways. But are we running away from where God put us, just like always?
And it strikes me that I’d prefer going to the most war-torn, poverty-stricken place in the world than engaging these kids. At least at the end of it we could get on a plane and return to our oasis.
I always took pride in being strongly against being ruled by safety. I didn’t know what I was talking about. I opposed it in principle. Jesus came for sinners, not the righteous. But I willingly deny my neighbors grace. And while I know being compassionate on my own is hopeless, here it’s as though all the love goes out of my heart and I’ve become ruled by the opposite impulse:
I’m afraid of the kids, but more than them, I’m afraid of what they cause in me, this animosity. They force me to face the question: Do I have the audacity to receive free grace and not share it?
I hate writing this because it turns out I’m so afraid of grace. Like I’ve always argued, grace forces us out. Out of line, out of comfort, out of control. If I claim it, I’ve got to stand out.
I know grace isn’t free license to sin or do whatever I want. But it kind of is. Because I could. And I do.
“Grace is no more license to sin than electricity is license to electrocute yourself.” (Paul Ellis)
But electricity pretty much is a license to electrocute yourself. Plenty of people have. And they may have thought they respected it as much as I thought I respected grace.
And what does this have to do with my chosen ministry of writing?
Sigh. Who am I kidding?
This has become my Africa currently. The mission field of other people’s kids.
I can’t fear them so much that I don’t respect the bigger danger: the reality of grace.
But this is scary, beyond rationality. I’m being triggered daily to remember the bullying I endured. I’ve never wanted to face it, so I’ve diminished it, too embarrassed. Why was I singled out? For being quiet?
As I was thinking this through, Sunday came and we went to church and our pastor quoted Charles Ringma on grace, how it’s given as a gift lavished on us regardless of our deserving. Ouch. And, he says it should come with a warning. If we receive it, we will be changed. Our lives can never be the same. He summarized the challenge of receiving grace by saying that it always calls us to respond and challenges us to move forward:
“Grace is never a convenient gift but a disturbing intruder. It’s not meant to lull us into the sleep of certitude, but dynamites our security so that we embrace the risk of faith and the challenge of discipleship.”
So in a way, those kids are my grace. This is not okay with me.
Flannery O’Connor said, “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.” In her finest short story, Revelation, published just after her death, the main character Mrs. Turpin shakes her fist at the girl who has insulted her, at the hogs, and at the Almighty. “Who do you think you are?” And she hears, “over the pasture and across the highway and the cotton field returned to her clearly, like an answer from beyond the wood” the return of her own question:
Isn’t that my problem? My cursed pride?
Knowing we will not keep all our wonderful merits, everything we’ve earned, I have to face the reality of the surpassing heat of God’s glory. Why would I ever presume to care for my moral goodness, especially when it’s so abundantly obvious I have none?
I want to tell others to give up all safety. Be audacious in your boldness to claim grace. But I’m a hypocrite and a liar. I don’t understand this grace and I don’t really appreciate it enough to want it for everyone.
I have scruples about ruffians and bullies bearing my grace.
So what can I do but pray for an opportunity to embrace them?
We get home and my beautiful wife tells me she’s spoken with them.
“You did?” I’m incredulous.
“They’re not complete horrors.”
She says as she talked to the oldest one and asked their names, one of the younger ones was filming her on her little camera–an apparent safety precaution. And when Sheri told them we see them playing in the street but we’re just “quiet” people, they seemed to accept this.
It shouldn’t have mattered so much to me, but it did. Have I mentioned how much I love my wife?
Sheri and I both have always feared loud, bold kids. But maybe God’s ready to get us over this. The reminders of the taunting and threats for simply being ourselves, they’ve made us stronger in many ways already. But in facing the fear and offering the smallest of graces–even simple acknowledgment–I see plenty of room for a new respect to grow.
And there’s my unthinkable lesson for writing and for life: Isn’t it by being audacious to trust God despite our limitations we show how the broken and unworthy come to know grace?
Read it again with me. Read it every day for a week. This has got to go in and stay there before it can come out and help others.
If I can believe it, I can live it. And if I can live it, maybe I can finally write it.
The central message is of being audacious and claiming what we know.
It may just come down to Ruby Turpin’s question:
Who do I think I am?