His appearance was intimidating. Not that I'm the type that ever judges by appearance (sarcasm noted). His face was covered with tattoos and even more permanent than the ink was his scowled expression. The state issued prison uniform didn't help either. His body language communicated anger and a constant need to be on the defense. My inner voice said he didn't want to be bothered. But because I believe in acknowledging the existence of another person (you know…where you actually say hello in passing), I forced myself out of my comfort zone, smiled and managed an awkward hello.
The moment almost passed as a seemingly insignificant exchange until a small toad leaped from the grass onto our path.
I watched his hostility melt away like a popsicle in August. He kneeled down like a gentle giant and scooped up the toad with a half smile that he couldn't suppress. It was like someone flipped the switch in a pitch black room and there was suddenly light again.
For a brief moment, I was given a glimpse of the childlike innocence he once had. Before anger became the default emotion. I saw the innocence before the scars of life, pain, and the destructive choices that led him to prison. I walked away, wondering what happened in his life that stole his innocence. I wondered what happened that stole his smile.
I often have the privilege of hearing the stories of others. We all have a story. A starting point in our life and then a timeline of events that shape us into who we become.
Stories have taught me this: there are multi-layered, complex, and deeply rooted reasons why people are the way they are and make the choices they make. And the real truth? You and I will never fully know all the reasons.
But this I know for sure....I have yet to meet a child who dreams of growing up to be a bitter adult. An adult who lives in repetitive cycles of destructive behavior, wrestles with depression, or battles addiction. An adult whose daily view is a landscape of razor wire.
Stories have also taught me this: There are often before moments in a person's life. When the world was a relatively safe and good place.
But then "the" event happens. And the before moment becomes a memory people will spend the rest of their lives chasing.
Before the rape.
Before the unexpected death.
Before a parent left.
Before the abortion.
Before the first time, you did that thing that you can't get past.
I had a woman tell me once, "By the age of 9, I got tired of living."
For some, there are no before moments. From birth, life feels like something they are sentenced to instead of something they get to live. My heart weeps at the thought.
God's heart weeps too.
But His posture towards those who have been crushed in life looks a lot like this story:
I was recently asked by a Mom to sign a word of encouragement on a t-shirt for her son, who is in rehab. On the day of her weekly visit with him, she wore this shirt covered with signatures and words of affirmation. A chorus of voices saying one thing: We believe in you. You are going to do great things.
The following week, a friend of mine reminded me again of God's posture towards us when she said this:
"All behavior is a form of communication. When no one else wants you, come to me, and I'll take care of you." This friend works in a field where many people have offensive behaviors and end up unwanted and cast aside by society and even family.
Perhaps our posture should be the same, one of unconditional love that heals people back to wholeness. Not judgment. Or assumptions. Not our opinion which is too often incorrect.
Matthew 11:28 says this: "Come to me all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest." Rest from the life you feel sentenced to. Rest from the things that have hurt you. Rest from the voice of regret. Rest……
It is impossible to hold judgment and compassion in the same hand. Only God sees all the broken pieces that make sense of the puzzle.
Ericka....thank you for the honor and privilege of hearing and sharing part of your story. Never stop dreaming that life can be so much better than the past.