Rolling on in the series, “STUFF I’VE PICKED UP ALONG THE WAY.” This one comes from an interaction I had at 16, & a late night conversation with God.
STUFF #6 – Speak life… or don’t speak.
Maybe you could call this “STUFF” the Thumper rule… You know, Thumper as in the lovable rabbit from the Disney movie, Bambi. The “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all,” rule. This is one of the most painful lessons I’ve picked up in my life, because it came about after causing someone tremendous pain with something I said…
Like many people (just about everyone?), I was very insecure as a teen – esp. in my mid-teen years. Over time & through a lot of practice I learned how to mask this insecurity by running my mouth, deflecting words spoken to/at me by using the old ‘the best defense is a good offense‘ routine.
In the summer of 1986, a group from my church (made up of a bunch of my peers & few adult chaperones,) was preparing to go to Mexico City during the World Cup to help a local church. Part of the preparation involved weekly meetings after church on Sundays where we learned things like a philosophy of missions, interacting with people in a different culture, how to navigate the biggest city in the world, & some rudimentary Spanish & Spanish-language stories, songs, & other fun stuff that would be a part of our trip. Looking back, I think the biggest thing we were trying to do was build chemistry with the people that we’d be spending 2 weeks with in a variety of pressure-filled situations. (Also funny – to me – is the fact that the room we met in for all those weeks of preparation now serves as my main office at the church. But I digress.)
My cousin (also going on the trip) & I decided, separately, that this trip to Mexico would be a good excuse to get a new haircut… a tall flat top ala Val Kilmer in “Top Gun.” Anyway, I showed up at our weekly Mexico prep meeting about 5 minutes late… only to walk in & see that my cousin had also got the same (similar?) haircut that I had & most definitely was pulling it off better than I was. To make matters worse, because he got there first, he was the one who ‘owned’ the haircut, & I was most evidently just copying him (which wasn’t true – but in the world I lived in at the time, that didn’t matter one bit… And I digress again…) Showing up & seeing his (better version of the) haircut took my anxiety & insecurity up a few notches to “just about ready to explode…” I took a chair by the door & tried (unsuccessfully) to disappear into the greenish silver wallpaper lining the majority of the wall space.
There were some giggles (to be expected, as there were several other teens in the room. Esp. funny with 2 of us having a similar, attempting to be trendy haircut. It was going to happen…) but I thought that I’d avoided any really negative comments or comparisons when we dove immediately into our Mexico team preparations. Alas, I was wrong.
There was a young lady on the team that had a crush on my cousin – & at a quiet moment when we were all reading in our Mexico notebooks, she made a comment about my haircut & stated her opinion: “Louie is just a so & so (insert my cousin’s name) wannabe.”
Her comment got a bunch of laughs & I was embarrassed & ashamed, & felt like the (negative) center of attention – my mind began to race a million miles an hour & I can remember looking over at this young lady & mentally shuffling through a catalogue of potential responses that might divert attention from ME to HER.
As the laughter died down a bit, I decided to go for broke & said something I knew would put the attention 100% on her: “Oh yeah? Well, you are just a killer whale wanna-be.” The guys in the room exploded with laughter & finger pointing. Ha! “I win,” I thought. And then I looked around & saw the majority of the ladies (& all the adults) had looks of surprise & disgust on their faces… they knew I’d crossed a line & had gone for the throat at this young lady’s expense.
The moment was too much for her, & she got up & ran out of the room. And didn’t come back.
I wish I could say I had a moment of clarity & repentance & that I immediately went to the young lady & apologized for my crass & crude & obnoxious comment (that was meant to damage her & make sure she never made the mistake of trying to make me the butt of a joke again.) But I didn’t. I tried to keep going like nothing wrong or bad had happened & that the girl’s response was just an overreaction, all the while knowing what I had said was destructive & wrong.
Later that night, I was trying to sleep but all I could do was replay that afternoon in my head. I finally decided that I would try to ‘pray’ about the situation & ask God to help me sleep. All I kept thinking about were the times that others had ‘fat-shamed’ me &/or called me by unflattering nicknames that I can still recall to this day.
Finally, I broke – I remember weeping in my bed, crying out to God & feeling horrible at the trauma I’d inflicted on this young lady. There came a point where I was finally (mostly) at peace, & as I was laying there, I ‘heard’ God speak to me (not an audible voice but still as clear as if it had been.) The gist of what was said was:
“I’ve given you a gift – a gift meant to build people up & encourage them. A gift that allows your words to be impactful & to make a difference in the lives of those you speak to. You can choose to use it for GOOD, or you can choose to use it for EVIL. It’s up to you to SPEAK LIFE (or DON’T SPEAK.)
That night started something in me – a process of transformation in the words I spoke – it wasn’t an overnight change, & there were still quite of bit of repenting on behalf of words I spoke, yet there was growth… & I can say that I didn’t speak to intentionally wound &/or cause damage anymore.
But I never went back & apologized to the young lady for what I’d said. And it weighed on me.
And then about 15 years ago, Joey broke his finger playing baseball. What does that have to do with anything? I’m glad you asked…
He & I spent the next couple of weeks going to doctor appointments & making sure everything would heal up ok… which meant a lot of time sitting in waiting rooms… & a lot of time for thinking. One morning on the way to the Reno Ortho Clinic, I had a memory of the “killer whale wanna-be” comment that I’d made so many years before… felt overwhelmed with what I can only call godly sorrow & remorse. I wept a bit, & thanked God for changing my heart (from where the words flow) & I thought I heard God say, “If you saw ________ (girl’s name) again, would you ask her for forgiveness?”
At that moment, there was nothing in the world further from my head as a possibility. HOW would I see her? I hadn’t seen her in 20 years or so, & didn’t even know where she lived, let alone how to get in touch with her.
We’d been sitting at Reno Ortho Clinic for about 30 minutes & I’d gotten bored with the retread magazines in the waiting room & I decided to engage in some clandestine people watching.
As I scanned the room for interesting sights, I saw a semi-familiar face. A face from the distant past. It was her. And her mom. Sitting in the SAME waiting room as I was. And she didn’t see me (or if she had, she was totally nonchalant-ing it – for some reason.) And I heard God’s voice again, asking gently, “If you saw ________ (girl’s name) again, would you ask her for forgiveness?”
I’d thought I would do it IF I ever saw her again. Didn’t really ever think I would. But there she was… & I froze. I felt ashamed. I was overwhelmed with a fear & insecurity I hadn’t felt in years as I wrestled in my head, trying to decide what to do.
In the in-between time, she & her mom were taken back to their exam rooms; Joey & I were taken to ours a few minutes later. I’d missed it. I’d blown a divine appointment, a chance given FROM God, BY God to repent, to tell her I was sorry, to OWN the wrong’s I had said. Self-flagellation ensued.
Later that afternoon, I was praying, bargaining with God – “Please give me another chance. If you give me another chance, I promise I’ll talk to her. I’ll make it right…” It felt like I was talking to the ceiling & that my prayers didn’t go beyond the room. I’d missed it.
About a month went by, & I’d completely given up hope that I’d ever see this woman again… after all, it had been > 20 years since our previous interaction, so why should I run into her again?
But I did. The funny thing is, I can’t even remember WHERE it was that I ran into her. There are so many things about this situation I can recall with such painful clarity… but not WHERE I saw her again. What I do know is that I walked up to her & said “Hello.” I re-introduced myself to her & saw that she had some recall of me. And before she could really say anything else, I asked her forgiveness. I told her about how terrible I felt at making her the focus of an insult obviously meant to wound & scar her. I told her the story about seeing her at the doctor’s office & how I’d asked for another opportunity to run into her. And now here it was.
She was gracious. She offered me forgiveness. I think we hugged. And I floated back to my car, thanking God for His goodness to give me yet another opportunity to make things right. And His words resonated in my head, “Speak LIFE…”
And they still do.