Wednesday, April 8, 2009

We too can live

[The following is an article I wrote for Conspire, a new quarterly journal that some of us are working on. The article was cut due to space constraints, but it can be read in its entirety at the Conspire website]

“Quincy says people can’t change.”

The 14-year-old boy was looking at me from the passenger seat of my car.

“Oh? Did he say that?” I asked.

Deon proceeded with a fascinating story about an altercation in the classroom, an intervening teacher, and Quincy’s response.

“Cuss out the teacher? What for?” I ventured.

“She do be getting on our nerves sometimes. Quincy wanted me to cuss her out, but I told him I’m not bad anymore. If it was the same ‘me’ from last year, I would have.”

“But it’s not the same ‘you’ as last year?” I asked knowingly.

“Nope.”

I don’t think he noticed, but I couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of our ride.


When I met him, Deon had been on probation for two years. Not only had the court ordered him to pay restitution for his crimes, they had ordered him to meet regularly with an adult mentor. I volunteered for the job and we began to meet regularly to hang out, talk about life issues, and work on homework. We also went on field trips together. (One night, he assumed we were going out to dinner, but I took him to prison and had him temporarily locked up among the violent offenders. He wasn’t very happy with me.)

I won’t go into details about what Deon was being charged with; that’s kind of between us. Suffice it to say, he was in some serious trouble. In fact, his probation officer told us with near certainty that he’d be locked up for a while. You see, kids on probation are periodically called into court. The probation officer keeps a watchful eye over the child’s behavior at school and home and reports to the judge. The court then decides whether further action (such as incarceration) is required.

When the day arrived, I escorted Deon to the courthouse, picking up his grandmother on the way. His single working mother, who toils continually to support her family, was unavailable to attend.

“Are you nervous?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he answered quietly. It was the first time I’d ever heard fear in his voice.

After waiting several hours (and hearing the screams and sobs of the boy before us as he was taken into custody), we were called into the courtroom. Deon stood alone in the center of the room as his charges were read. Having nothing to say in his own defense, he stared at the floor. The judge turned to his grandmother and asked if she had anything to say on behalf of her grandson. She admitted that she had no defense to offer. As his heart sank, so did mine. I began bracing myself for the conversation I would have with his mother, telling her I had left the court room without her son.

And then came something rather unexpected. Deon’s grandmother pointed at me and said I knew him very well. Perhaps, she suggested, I might have something to contribute. I was on my feet in an instant. I startled rattling off everything that had happened in the past few months, how we had worked to improve his grades, how school behavior had started to improve, and how we were talking through a lot of issues together. When I was finished with my well-intentioned tirade, the judge and probation officer responded with silence and quizzical looks. Finally (once they realized that I was his mentor and not a psychopath), the judge decided to give us a chance to prove ourselves. She temporarily suspended all rulings with the understanding that we would return to court in one month for another evaluation.

“Don’t play with me,” said the skeptical probation officer, “Show me you’re serious, or I’ll have no choice but to lock you up.”

Thirty days dashed by and we found ourselves in the court room for the second time. This time, I sat at the defense table with Deon and presented documentation that demonstrated improvements in school attendance, grades, and behavior. The judge and the officers in the room conferred quietly. Rulings were suspended again and the probation officer ushered us into his office.

“Before today’s hearing, I wasn’t going to tell you about this. The juvenile court is hosting a bowling party next week for kids who are modeling good behavior. Deon, I would like for you to come.”

I actually started checking the room for a hidden camera thinking perhaps that we were the victims of some tasteless reality television show. At his last court appearance, they had every intention of putting this kid behind bars; one month later, he was going bowling with his probation officer! From the accused party to the life of the party, this kid was getting some serious mileage. (I admit that I got some strange looks when I started giggling.)

The PO gave us sixty days to demonstrate continued improvement. At that point, the court would reevaluate his case and determine the next step. We were elated as we left the court house, but also apprehensive of the daunting challenge that leered at us from the horizon.

Those sixty days were not easy. It seems almost simplistic to describe the journey as sparingly as I have so far. There were accidents and relapses and bouts of fatigue. We stumbled into cleverly made traps, braved unforeseen dangers, and tiptoed past the enemy’s landmines. Crucibles exist to burn away impurities, and while it was intense and often painful, our sixty day crucible offered the hope of coming out better on the other side.

When his day finally arrived, Deon walked into the courtroom and spoke for the first time on his own behalf. I sat beside him in silence, trying very hard not to explode into tiny shards of joy and pride.

When the proceedings had finished, the judge turned to the probation officer and asked, “What is your recommendation?”

The officer closed the file on the table in front of him and, in a shocking and unexpected move, he declared, “At this point, I recommend that Deon’s probation be terminated.”

“It is so ordered.”

There was smiling and laughter. The bailiff was shaking our hands and patting us on the back. Deon proudly announced to his grinning probation officer that he hoped never to see him again. Even for the court, it was a rare breath of clean air, a new beginning, a fresh start. The debts were erased, the chains were all gone, and Deon had been raised again to new life.

You know, I was always told that the Resurrection served the chief purpose of proving that Jesus was telling the truth. It was as if the empty tomb had been stipulated as Exhibit A in some cosmic trial, or as undeniable proof that Jesus had succeeded in His mission. As a child, I would picture the Roman soldiers shaking their heads in surprise as Jesus leapt from behind the stone shouting, “See! Told you I’d come back!”

“Okay, ye of little faith. Pay up,” the disciples would say, poking Thomas in the ribs as they collected on their bet.

Or maybe the Resurrection was just a platform for God to show off His super powers. Maybe Jesus was simply flexing His divine muscles in order to astonish humans into following Him.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the garden tomb, direct your attention to the center ring. Watch as the angel whips away the blanket. Poof! He’s gone! But wait! Look, there, in the mezzanine!”

Suddenly, Jesus appears in a tuxedo and declares, “Now, for my next trick…”

Does the Resurrection prove that Jesus was speaking the truth? Yes, it does. Is the Resurrection a manifestation of God’s awesome power? Yes, it is. But when we reduce the Resurrection to mere evidence and sheer spectacle, I think we miss something.

The hope of the Resurrection does not rest in the promise of eventual escape to heaven. The Resurrection shows us that Jesus has broken into this world, crippling the powers of darkness and making it possible for us to live, yes live, as unshackled citizens of His Kingdom. Jesus doesn’t merely make bad people good. He doesn’t merely make sick people well. He raises the dead to life. He is outrageous and inventive, subversive and ingenious, wild and creative. He liberates us from the powers of darkness and calls us into marvelous light. He raids our hospitals, turning bedpans into flowerpots and syringes into knitting needles. He converts our wheelchairs into go-carts and our sick-beds into trampolines. He trades our handcuffs for bracelets and paints frescoes on our bodies with prison tattoos. He teaches us to shake off our chains and use them as jump ropes. He springs kids out of jail and sends them partying with their probation officers. The Resurrection reminds us it is here, it has started, it is always but coming. Our groaning creation can begin to laugh again. Jesus lives, and so can we, and it begins right now.

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