“Jesus Pettengill” Wants to Punch Someone In the Face

I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news through which you are being saved… that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised again on the third day…”  –1 Corinthians 15:1-3

Reminders are important, lest we forget.  I suppose we don’t really forget something like the resurrection but we do grow weary in our remembering.

My son Manny plays lacrosse for the West Islip PAL league.  He’s a defense-men.  The other day Manny came off the field after practice crying and greatly upset.  When I caught up with him he wouldn’t look me in the eye and he kept repeating over and again “I’m going to punch him in the face.”  This is very unusual for Manny, who I know to be a peaceful child, and to get along well with most anyone.

“Let’s take a walk.”  I said, and we started around the field.  I tried to calm him down.  Nothing worked.  I tried to get him to tell me what was the matter.  He wouldn’t.  He just kept repeating, “I’m going to punch him in the face.”

Finally, having no other option, I grabbed his face-mask and pulled his helmet right up to my face and said with a forceful whisper  “You aren’t punching anyone.  Blessed are the peacemakers.”

This wasn’t the first time Manny had heard this saying from Jesus’ sermon on the mount.  He and I had talked about it before, and perhaps most importantly, he’s heard it from his church community.  It’s the community that stands behind the saying that helps give the teaching of Jesus its weight in our moral conscience.   It’s the lives of the church community on display before Manny that made this more than a lesson from Aesop’s Fables, or a clever turn of a phrase from a fortune cookie.  These were the words of Jesus, the one who Manny came to know in the communion with the church.  So when Manny heard the words of Jesus, and the words of his home, and the words of his church, there was impact, and when nothing else would calm him, these words calmed him.

When he gathered himself he told me that there was another kid on the team continually harassing him.  This had been going on for a while.  He finished describing the harassment and looked at me plaintively and said, “I know what you are going to say.  I’ve tried laughing it off.  I’ve tried changing the subject.  I’ve told the adults around me.  Nothing works.  Am I supposed to just let everyone laugh at me?”

All of this has a long pre-history.  Manny’s parents didn’t do him any favors.  Ten years ago we thought we were clever and named him ‘Immanuel’, meaning “God is with us.”   It made sense to Shannon and me, for when our children are in our presence that is the way we feel.  Plus I was a pastor, and our’s was a pastor’s family, so we thought biblical names were a nice fit.  On top of that I am in the habit of praying with my children before bed, an expression of piety that I learned from my parents, and at night I have the habit of praying, “help Manny to be friends to those who have no friends.”  As part of his Christian development Manny took this prayer seriously and started inviting over children who were despised by their peers.  It didn’t take much of this kind of behavior for Manny to develop a reputation–and some folks at school started mocking him, calling him ‘Jesus.’  When you are a fourth grader you’re too young to know there are worse things to be called.

So here we were post Lacrosse practice and I was in a real fix.  “Jesus Pettengill” wanted to punch somebody in the face.  Knowing all the particulars like I do, I can understand his frustration and anger.

It’s not easy having conversations with your children about the hurts they receive in life.  It’s one thing when the abuse is coming your way.  Say what you want about me.  Hit me for all I care.  I’m big, I don’t cry much anymore, and I can take it–but go easy on my kid.  He’s still young, and innocent, and good.  I don’t like seeing pain in my kids eyes.  I don’t like the fact that there is meanness that is so pervasive and unrelenting that it can take an otherwise peaceful child and make him say “I’m going to punch him in the face.”  A loud voice inside me was pleading with me to let go of the leash.  Go ahead Manny, shut him up for good.

I’m pretty sure if I was 33 that would have been my response, but seeing as how I am now a mature 34 I Instead took a deep breath and I told my son the tough truth, “Did you expect it to be easy?  Christianity is the hardest thing you will ever do. Non violence isn’t the easy way, it’s the way to the cross.  Jesus followed it and look what it got him.  They laughed at Jesus too.

Now understand at this moment these were not words of comfort from a dad to a son.  These were words of terror, for him and for me.  Do you know the pain of hoisting the cross on your own child’s shoulders?  He says, “Dad it’s too heavy.  It hurts.  Let me put it down.  Let this cup pass from me.”  And you look him in the eye and say, “Tough.  Carry it.  It’s yours.  It is all I can give you.”

If you are teaching the way of the cross to your kids, this is going to happen.  Now I know, there are ways to deal with bullies and meanness in children.  You can meet with parents, and call the school for help, and when things escalate to the point of deep detriment to your child these are things that must happen, and I would encourage any parent to follow these paths.  Bullying should never be allowed.  But on top of that is the lesson of the cross and Good Friday–there will always be resistance to the God led life.  It will always threaten somebody.  They will always lash out.  There will always be pain.  Someone will hurt you, and when it happens Jesus wants your love to be so radical that you don’t offer violence in return.

But here I am, human, and weak, and frail–and I love my kid.  And I forget sometimes, or I grow weary in remembering, and Manny will come off the field again, or come home from school, no matter what I do, and he will have stories of ill treatment.  As will every child.  And you can only stare at Good Friday for so long before you grow sick in your stomach from all the blood and agony.  Will it ever get better?  Maybe I should just tell him to do what the other kids do–let might make right.

And then I remember…

“I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news through which you are being saved… that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised again on the third day…”

The Corinthians of Paul’s day were just like us; they had their doubts, and they grew weary in remembering.  When the Corinthians stood to sing Christ the Lord is Risen Today they wondered if it would really happen.  The Corinthians were comfortable with the resurrection of Jesus, but they weren’t sure about the general ‘resurrection of the dead.’  Of course Christ rose from the dead, the Corinthians confessed, but will we rise, and will the cosmos be redeemed?

The skepticism is well earned.  Resurrection, redemption, reconciliation, repair, justice, things being made right–they are all so unbelievable.  We love to hear stories about them but we listen to these stories with suspicion.  Why?  Because our children stumble off lacrosse fields with tears in their eyes.  We are much better at Good Friday then we are at Easter.  Good Friday makes sense of the planet and thus makes sense to us.  Good Friday explains what happened on that Lacrosse field.  Crucifixion is the unavoidable destiny for good people in our world, and if you want to be a disciple of Jesus it will happen to you too.

Easter on the other hand is hard to hold in our memory.  It doesn’t happen every day.  The people in our graves are still dead after three days.  The world crushes good people and leaves them crushed.  All it takes is one run in with strong, coercive, self serving power where you, in all your goodness, come out on the losing end and you know this is true.  That’s the problem.  Despite the crowd pleasing winning Hollywood formula of ‘happy ever after’ we still flinch every time someone raises a fist.  We’ve been a hit a few too many times and we’re weary in remembering, and we’re not entirely convinced that things turn out right when the credits role, so why follow Christ and take the abuse.  The Easter story is too good to be true.  It’s too fairy tale.  It’s too unrealistic.

Will Willimon describes a lecture he attended on the renewal of inner city churches that was delivered by Jim Wallis.  During the lecture Wallis described in detail a number of declining inner city churches that, by the grace of God, had rediscovered their first love and sense of mission, and as a result were thriving again in a blessed resurrection.  Willimon was inspired by Wallis’s speech but was dismayed by the reaction of his fellow lecture attendees.  They seemed determined to dismiss Wallis’s claim (some even suggested Wallis was lying), and accused Wallis of oversimplifications, and of not understanding their sad urban realities.  Willimon approached Wallis after the event  and confessed that he was appalled by the groups reaction.  Wallis calmly responded, “I wasn’t, that’s the reaction I always get from mainline pastors.  They are amazed when God wins.  Scared to death that Easter just might, after all, be true.”  The pastors had all grown weary in remembering, and so do we.

I am convinced there’s only one way we can continually live and parent in the shape of the cross.  We have to remember, and be reminded, by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, and by our community of faith, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised again on the third day.  Easter is the reason I can ask Manny to hold back.   Easter is the only way I can stomach the idea of hoisting a cross on his shoulders.  Because I remember that when you follow Jesus, you don’t just follow him to Good Friday, you follow him all the way to Sunday Morning and the empty tomb.  When you follow Jesus, you are not only a candidate for punishment, you are a candidate for glorification, and new life.  I want that for my children, which is why, Manny, when you came off that lacrosse field I hoisted that cross on your growing shoulders.

So reader, this Easter season let me grab your face-mask and pull you right up close.  I don’t care how angry you are.  You’re not punching anyone.  Hear the good news through which you are being saved… that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised again on the third day…” 

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