The question was posed nonchalantly, but suddenly a vision (actually, a memory) hit me hard and took my breath away. I saw “Joe’s” face, sad and glum, tired and weary looking at us from behind a plexiglass window. Three of us huddled around a telephone. Joe picked up his phone on the other side of the window and it looked as though he was battling back something. Tears? Shame? Fear?
Joe is a close relative of mine. I won’t use his real name or his real relationship to me, because his story is his to tell… but I’m a part of that story, and so I will share my side of it.
Growing up, I looked up to Joe and always wanted to be around him. I probably drove him nuts, always tagging along. He was the one who taught me how to play basketball. He taught me the basic rules of kickball and backyard baseball. He always tricked me out of my best baseball cards in exchange for that hard strip of bubble gum that used to come in the packs and made the whole stack of cards smell sweet.
I loved him. And even though he may not have ever realized it, I modeled a lot of myself after him.
But somewhere along the line, I’m not sure when exactly, he began to change. Apparently addiction had seeped into his life–he would eventually tell us a little about it. But we found it hard to believe. How had we, who had been so close to him, missed the obvious?
Looking back, some of his behavior toward the end of high school in the years following fit with the addiction story… but at that time we just couldn’t seem to wrap our minds around it all.
One thing was clear, though: His life was spiraling out of control. It seemed he was always in trouble, always owing someone money, always dodging a “crazy” girlfriend, etc… There would be days, weeks, months that we wouldn’t know where he was. And he was stealing from practically everyone who loved him.
Soon enough, this lifestyle caught up with him. And he found himself in jail.
Three of us drove out to see him. He was across the border in Kentucky… not terribly far, but the drive to visit someone we loved in jail felt like an eternity.
We sat in a waiting room, feeling out-of-place. This wasn’t our family. We aren’t the type of people who have to sit in jailhouse waiting rooms! We didn’t fit in with all the other people sitting around us.
After a while our names were called and we were shown down a narrow hallway that ran behind the row of visitation booths. We huddled around the hard, plastic chair and waited.
When Joe walked up, he looked so lost. Orange did not look good on him. It made him look… well… it made him look like a criminal. But it was the look in his eyes that hurt so bad.
We spoke to him for a few minutes. To this day, I don’t even remember what the conversation was about. I’m not sure it was about anything in particular. We weren’t there to lecture or preach. We had only gone to be with him, if only for a few moments. We went to let him know that we still loved him, after everything he had put us through. We went to see him with our own eyes, to make sure he was safe.
But seeing him like that nearly killed me. It would take me weeks to process what I was feeling… weeks to find the courage to cry those feelings of loss and helplessness out.
The worst thing was that I was never able to go back. It’s not that I wanted to cut Joe off from my life. It was that I couldn’t bear to see someone I loved like that, looking so alone and scared and lost.
But when the speaker recited the familiar scripture passage this week, I was transported back in time to a difficult moment years ago (what is it now? Thirteen years, or so?).
Suddenly, I realized, that I had a moment so many years ago to look into Joe’s eyes and to see something more than the boy who had once taught me to free throw or how to slide in to home… I had the chance to see Jesus in the face of someone who seemed so very far from Jesus at that moment.
You see, Jesus never meant for us to look at someone in the worst moment of their life and to see a role model or an example to be followed. That’s not what he meant when he commented on those who saw him in prison and visited him. He was talking about the capacity to love. That those of us who could look into the lost eyes of someone who was drifted off the path and to see a child of God, worthy of love, needing forgiveness, and as hungry for grace as the rest of us.
Who are we to ignore that?