And Jesus said to them, ‘Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’ [Mark 10:14]
When I was around six years old, my parents took me to a Christmas Eve party for migrant workers at the edge of the little town where I grew up. The tradition at our house was that we didn’t open our gifts until Christmas morning. Overall, I felt that my family was, well, really pretty poor. After all, we didn’t have a lot of the things others did. Mother scrimped and saved and there just never seemed to be enough money for the really important things, like the toys I wanted. In that respect, I was probably a pretty typical, selfish, self-centered little boy. One family, in particular, had lots more than we did. They lived across the alley in a big two-story house. It seemed that their kids had just about every single thing a kid could want.
Anyway, off we went to the party. We took little gifts for the kids who would be there. As I recall, it took place at the mission church on “that” side of town.
I was profoundly affected by what I saw there. It was probably the first time I’d ever realized what poverty looked like. Here were children who truly had nothing. Their parents had nothing to give them for Christmas. The kids eyes lit up like Christmas tree lights as they, respectfully, accepted their gifts. Both my parents spoke Spanish, so they were able to talk to the ones who had no English.
When we got home, I went to my room, sat down, and cried. My mother came in and asked why I was crying. I couldn’t tell her. How do you know how to express that kind of emotion at six? She went on to assure me I’d get my gifts in the morning, then left the room and returned with a Snickers Bar. She said it was hard to cry and eat a Snickers at the same time. How’d she know that? She was, as usual, right. Yes, of course I ate the Snickers. Wouldn’t you? It’s hard to refuse candy, even when you’re grieving for the poor – the actual poor. It’s also hard to cry with your teeth virtually stuck together.
See, my mother misunderstood why I was crying. And I was to never forget that. But, who could blame her? I’m sure it was natural to assume a small child is crying because he’s not getting what he wants, when he wants it. But I remember that incident to this day. I can still see myself sitting at the edge of my bed on the top bunk, chewing a Snickers and trying not to cry. I had no way of knowing how to describe to my mother how or what I was feeling. It certainly wouldn’t be the last time I was unable to express myself. I already lived in a split world where the good little Christian boy duked it out with the little boy who knew he was bad (after all, he’d been told that) and couldn’t say what else was happening to him. All he knew was that God would be disappointed in him.
You know how adults think children are deaf? I recall a case of the measles. It seemed I was constantly having the measles, though I probably wasn’t. Anyway, my piano teacher dropped by to see how I was doing. I was on my parent’s bed playing with some little cars, probably some Tinker Toys. Standing at the door, my piano teacher said, “He plays well by himself, doesn’t he?” My mother agreed that I did. You see? Apparently deaf as a doornail. What they didn’t know was that already the only really safe place for me was inside my head.
The very first Sunday I accidentally showed back up church after my 40-year absence, there was Children’s Time in the service. As the children came down front to gather around the Children’s minister, my step-mother leaned over to me and said, “That was you once.” I was mortified. It had been difficult enough to show up and now she was reminding me of a childhood I’d tried to forget. On top of that, a dear friend who knew me back when I was six had slipped in on the other side of me. I’d forgotten that she also went to that church. Now, I was really surrounded by my childhood. The Children’s minister talked to the kids about it being okay to ask for help. My first reaction as I fought back the tears was, “Why wasn’t I taught that as a child?” Thankfully, my next thought was, “How nice these children are being taught that.”
Was I really not taught that it was okay to ask for help? Well, yes and no. It’s a confusing world sometimes, don’t you think? Little boys don’t cry, isn’t that right? It was certainly what I was told – explicitly and absorbed as a social norm. And, of course, I was a little boy who cried at the drop of a hat. That didn’t leave me in a good spot with the other boys – especially when they were together as a group.
So, have we established that I was a sensitive child? Perhaps, just a crybaby? My brother finally told me that I was just going to have to learn to laugh along with the other boys. Then, teasing me would get boring and they’d leave me alone. I think that was after falling face-down in a crying fit during a touch football game. Sports were never my strong suit. It took me a long time, but I learned not to cry. I learned that lesson so well I stopped crying for many, many years. I learned that lesson so well that I couldn’t (wouldn’t) tell my mother I loved her to her face – even at the end of her life. Why? Because I knew I’d break down crying if I expressed any emotion at all. I knew my mother loved me, but I also knew I didn’t deserve love. See, I was different. I learned that lesson growing up in more ways than I care to remember. So, I could no longer deal with being touched. I allowed people to get close at times, but a part of me kept them at a mental arms-length. I was always ready to run if the going got too tough – or too tender. I was supposed to be strong, but didn’t know how to be strong. I wanted to be helpful, but that might evoke emotions I could not afford. It’s weak to ask for help. I’d learned my lesson well.
And so I held off taking that first drink just as long as I could. It was the solution – the only solution – for the next thirty-three years.
You’re wondering, I suppose, what all this has to do with migrant children, Christmas gifts, poverty, and Snickers.
Some things just never really go away. When I got back to church, we sang a song I don’t think I’d ever heard before. It’s a beautiful, moving song. The title is Here I am, Lord. “Here I am, Lord, Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night.” And I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. I’d tried for over forty years to ignore the call I’d heard as a child. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t hear it through all of those soggy years after. But, I have an incredible capacity for ignoring what’s uncomfortable. There was no place left in Ben’s World for God. No, that had become too dangerous, also. But I remembered what it was I knew I was supposed to do way back then. I was able to drown a lot of memories with years of drinking, but some things simply never left.
And so, the world has changed. Well, perhaps it’s just me who’s changed. But it certainly feels like the world has changed. That may be because I finally allowed myself the luxury of being in the company of truly loving people who appear to understand the real message of Jesus. He never asked me to worship him, but instead to follow. His concept of a loving world was so radical that it seems the message has been largely ignored for over 2000 years now.
I woke up after all those years of drinking and looked around me. Where in God’s name did I get all that stuff? How, I wondered, did I think that somehow I was going to buy my way into happiness, into comfort, into safety?
So, I remember now that “It is more blessed to give than receive.” I remember the faces of those kids so many years ago. I remember how good it felt to share. I remember that was a part of me then. I remember that can be a part of me now.