It was one of those “Duh” moments. A bit of background.
I drove to Ohio on Saturday. It is a 3-hour drive. I went for several reasons, the first of which was to see my old high school basketball coach. He is, sadly so, in jail for sexual deviancy. It is a long story. He faces sentencing next Monday and I wanted to see him beforehand. I also drove home because of the annual Hall of Fame banquet. I was inducted last year so it feel important to go back the year after. But that also provided an opportunity to reconnect with some classmates who came to last year’s inductions.
I got to the jail at 2:30p and spent about an hour with my coach/friend. What a stupid thing we do in our justice system. We isolate people and keep them from the very thing they are desperate for, and the thing that I believe has the best chance of producing change: connection. That last sentence fits in what I ultimately want to communicate in this missive. Here was a man who posed no threat but with whom I could not sit or hug. I had to talk to Coach through a window not much bigger than 1’ x 1’ on a telephone that made hearing next to impossible. There was nobody else around. It seemed like there was no one else in the building as I waited to gain entrance and then waited again to see coach. I was only able to gain access this day because of being “clergy,” which explains the absence of people. I left after 45 minutes wishing for more. I wanted more dialogue but I also felt like he needed to simply talk, which he did for most of the 45 minutes. Presence matters. My presence there, I suspect, probably communicated as much as any words I could have spoken. There was one moment, however, as coach was talking about shame and judgment from others, when I drew in closer to the window and said to him, “there is no judgment on this side of the phone.” He wept. As I drove away, I wish I could have spoken more into his thirst. I could hear it in the details of how he ended up there. I could hear it in the story of his upbringing that he relayed to me for nearly 20 minutes of our time together. I could feel how he had never given thought to it but how it was driving him to live the way he has, and not only in the behavior that has landed him in jail.
Off to the banquet. What a provoking time. I knew hardly anyone. It felt like high school, like entering the cafeteria and frantically looking for someone and somewhere to sit. I saw an old teacher friend with whom I have emailed, and with whom I have felt “special” but she didn’t have room at her table. That was provoking. I sat with my old cross country coach, now 70, and he didn’t even know who I was. I laughed and was once again provoked. We are but a vapor in this life, gone and forgotten. I was deeply aware of my loneliness, wishing for someplace to fit. And the evening, all the stories and interactions, reaffirmed that I didn’t fit here; this is not my home. While driving home, I think that reality opened a door into my soul of what I felt all the years growing up there: a deep sense of aloneness that was masked by athletic and academic abilities and achievements. I couldn’t wait to leave the banquet, excusing myself shortly after the meal to meet classmates at a restaurant.
Off to the restaurant where I would spend the next 3 and 1/2 hours talking with five former classmates. What a surprise the evening became. As one might expect, we reminisced. We laughed hard. There was some serious conversation. I asked them for some time, telling them I had a couple of personal questions I would love for them to answer. They seemed eager where I expected resistance. As the evening unfolded and the conversation moved in and out of laughter and seriousness, I was amazed at what I heard in their words and behind their words. I would describe my hometown as devoid of God. Be mindful that that is the perspective of a kid ages 12-18. I had 230 classmates and I knew of only one other believer, a girl who really didn’t run in my circle. All of those present Saturday night would not have struck me as believers back in the day. And yet, one by one as they talked it was apparent that something of God was present in nearly everyone of them. I am not sure they are believers even now but then I am not the determiner of such things. But clearly, God’s redemptive thread was being woven amidst my friends, a lot because of suffering and the pain that life brings. Tammy, for example, lost her husband of 35 years just last year. When I asked the group what had surprised them about life, she was, along with another, quick to speak: “It is really hard.” None of us expected that when we were 17 and 18 yrs old. The evening ended with another person showing up. Her arrival was at first sad. I didn’t know her. She wasn’t part of our class; rather, she was the sister of someone at the table. But what a joy she was! Her faith quickly became apparent and as we stood to disband, she wanted to pray. We circled up and put our arms around one another as she prayed beautiful words.
As I drove away, I felt so many emotions. I can recall right where I was on the road home as I began to weep, rejoicing that God is always at work, his redemptive thread being woven in unsuspecting places and people. And I felt joy that I had played a “bit” part in the unfolding drama of God. Everything seemed right for just a moment: God’s large story unfolding and my small part in the story. I had asked a dangerous question before departing: “What was I like at 18? What was it like to live with me?” I asked for honest feedback. Sweet words came and particularly from a source I would not have expected. And then in another, I heard the ache of wanting to belong, to fit and that our lives had not intersected in a way that made it happen back then. I think my tears too, were because of how I had lived inconsistent with the Gospel, a faith that was anti-relational. That grieved me; still does. Perhaps God will straighten it all out someday…if it will even matter then.
Off and on for the next 20 minutes driving home, I wept. I am not sure why but one thing that is clear to me is the ache in my soul, and the souls of my classmates to fit and belong. I was so grateful that God was on the move in my hometown, saving and drawing. Pray for Tammy and Dara, even if it is just this once as you read these words. I want them to know the Lord.
And that brings me to the purpose of writing. It is my “Duh” moment. Before writing these words, I wrote to Dara thanking her for organizing our time but also because I want to share the Gospel with her. I grew up in the church. I grew up under the pressure of believing I needed to talk to people about Jesus. For me, that primarily meant getting people to see that they are sinners in need of forgiveness. They need Jesus and his forgiveness. That was the plan of salvation as I understood it then. Truthfully, as I reflect back, something was missing even then. All of what I just wrote regard the Gospel is true but I now believe it to be incomplete. And then something occurred to me as I thought about writing Dara this morning. It is so simple that I am almost embarrassed to mention it. But what is missing is what I see Jesus doing with the woman at the well. It is what I see God doing with his people through the history we call the Bible. But sadly, it is not very frequent in how we present the Gospel story. It’s this: appealing to her/their thirst as the pathway to the Gospel message. Sure, sin needs addressed but it is not the primary pathway. It is, instead, secondary. What opens the door to the glorious freedom of the Gospel is our thirst for more than this life offers. I could hear in Dara’s words on several occasions, her thirst. When I sent her the initial email asking her to organize the evening, she said over the table Saturday night that she couldn’t believe “Kent Denlinger was asking me for help.” Do you hear what is behind those words? And then later when asked what it was like to grow up with me, she said, “I didn’t even think you knew I existed.” I don’t necessarily feel wrong for her pain though it wouldn’t take me long to accurately identify how I contributed to it. Instead, for the sake of what I am writing, what I hear is her deep hunger to fit, to be noticed, to belong. I wanted to appeal to this part of her heart, which I believe is the deepest part, as I told her about the Gospel I have come to know.
I grew up fixated on what is wrong in me and in others. I still am today and certainly there is a place for it. But I wish I was less consumed with that and more consumed with seeing behind annoying behaviors and words. I wish I more quickly gravitated toward the hunger and thirst in another’s soul that becomes the best doorway into the life-giving truth of Jesus. May God help me in the transition.
Grace upon grace to you,