"Erected to the memory of John Phillips. Accidently shot - as a mark of affection - by his brother." - Gravemarker in New England.
In the early 70s my family lived in Aurora, Colorado in a quiet little neighborhood much like many of the older towns here in Alabama. I came across it the other day looking up old places I lived on Google Earth. (The address is 986 Dearborn Street, Aurora, Co if you want to see it yourself.) The center of the neighborhood was Ford Elementary School, which, from our little home on Dearborn Street, was literally over our back yard fence. During second and third grade I walked to school, and went home everyday for lunch.
Next door to us, on the corner, lived the Crofts. Mrs. Croft was a folk guitarist, and, looking back, probably had much more of a sixties mindset than my family had. In my mind I can still hear her playing her guitar and singing "Blowin' in the Wind", and, while at the time I didn't know who wrote the song, stands as my first ever memory of any Bob Dylan song. Her son, Taylor, and I are the same age and played together regularly in those days. Those were the days when G.I. Joes were full size dolls, and, with their great king fu grip, Taylor and I played G.I. Joes for hours like most 6 and 7 year old boys of our time.
However, this quiet neighborhood was broken up occaisionally by the neighborhood bully. I am sure that every neighborhood has them, and this quiet little neighborhood was no different. Unfortunately for us, ours lived in the corner house directly across the street from Taylor. His name was Jeff, and though only a year older, was much, much bigger than either Taylor or me.
I don't know that Jeff was your typical bully. I don't recall him ever beating me or anyone else up. I don't recall him yelling or taunting us. All I remember was being intimidated by him and his size and if he wanted to come and play with our G.I. Joes he did - and we didn't question or fight back. We viewed ourselves as powerless, helpless and weak to his greater power and authority. And I have never forgotten that feeling of intimidation and weakness that Jeff caused just by his presence. Bullies take because they can and hurt because they will. While justifications for their harm may be offered, justifications are not necessary.
Fast forward a few years to another quiet neighborhood in another town. At the end of Hahn Ave, the street where we lived at the time, moved a new family, the Coles. They have one son, Marc, who is approximately the same age as most of the other boys that live in our little section of the neighborhood. Marc wore thick glasses, and was fairly skinny and lanky.
By the time they moved in, the boys in the late pre-teen early teen years were already friends in the neighborhood. There was me, Eric, Van, Chris, Greg, Michael, Rob and Mark, all of us within a year or two of each other's age. For some reason, when the Coles moved in there was some collective consciousness among us that we would not accept Marc into our "group" and would treat him with contempt. And pour it on we did. For absolutely no reason, as certainly Marc had never done anything to any of us other than to look weaker than us, he was chosen during those years to be the outcast, the focal point and butt of our jokes, the target for snow balls in the winter, and verbal assaults in the summer. And, like the immature children we were, we could justify our actions toward Marc if they were ever questioned.
In truth, Marc was a decent guy just trying to get along, and we, me included, were nothing more than bullies, making his like miserable for our own pleasure. In later years, toward the end of high school, Marc, the Van Halen devote', was finally accepted in our "group" of Pink Floyd and psychedelic rock listeners and would hang out and listen to music with the rest of us on Van's killer HiFi. But those early years were clearly hell for Marc, and they were that way because of me.
As I look back on those two times in my life, it is scary for me to see how quickly I went from bullied to bully, not learning the lessons of my earlier days, and forgetting the empathy that adversity and trial should inevitably bring, but for some reason doesn't deliver. But I look back and see, that is how the world works - the strong, by force of might or deceit of mind, prey on the weak as if they are not persons, or at least persons worthy of their presence and friendship. The strong justify their own actions as either being entitled to behave in such a manner, or that the weak deserve such treatment. The weak are something to be used for the amusement of the strong. That is the way of the world. It is the way to hide their other weaknesses and insecurities.
John tells us "But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him." (1 John 2:9).
Like a shot to the nose, those words ring out against me. They convict me. They condemn me. They beat me up and bully me, calling me to examine my own heart and attitude and actions, even as I witness the heart and attitudes and actions of others. How quick I am to judge others in relation to myself, all the while over looking my own weakness, failings, and faults. And how blinded by the darkness I am when I fail to love my brothers and sisters in all their weaknesses. When I sit by quietly and permit the strong to prey on the weak.
Often I see, even within the church, the sense of entitlement that strength and power bring. I witness, among my brothers and sisters, and even within myself, an attitude of contempt and derision of those who are weaker in the faith, weaker in the body, and weaker in the soul. I witness the weak bullied by the strong, I know God is not in those actions, and Christ is not honored therein. I see the fragile souls entrusted to our care, and the wreckless and careless manner in which they are treated. And how, like poor John Phillips, they get caught in the cross fire of their brother's "affections". I see how we often suffer it to be so by inaction and inattention.
And I witness how quickly we forget that it is not our strength which unites us, but rather our weakness. How we are each sinners struggling through this world, completely and totally relying on the power of Christ to save us, and not our own. And how we forget how desperately we need the love of each other, as brothers, as sisters, just to find our way.
I am glad to be a part of Community Prebyterian Church, a place where the Marcs and the Jeffs can commingle, and each recieve the care and love of Christian brothers. And hopefully find the peace and acceptance and respect each deserves. A place where we want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Phil 3:10-11). And while we are by no means perfect, we are a place where we try not to shoot our brothers, not even by accident.
To the Marcs in my past, my present and in our church, I seek your forgiveness. Both for my actions, and for suffering the actions of others.
To Jeff's of my past, my present and in our church, I offer mine.
And to each know that we have tried to put away our childish behavior and cannot and shall not withdraw our love.
God, help us to continue to learn what it means to love one another.