Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Coming of Age, Part One: Darkness and Grace

During the fall of 1973, innocently ignorant of Vietnam, the Watergate hearings and just what a fashion disaster the current decade was turning out to be, my thick glasses and I began our kindergarten journey at Butternut Elementary in North Olmstead, a Cleveland, Ohio, suburb.

My kindergarten teacher, Ms. Farmer, might have been the first authority figure to call me John instead of “Johnny.” I had always been Johnny until school, and then somehow morphed into John. Embracing my formal name in a sense formalized my slow ascent to adulthood, one small metaphor for letting go of innocence. Even though many in my family stuck with the endearing nickname, I became John in my mind and in some way was older because of this.

Shy, quiet, compliant and a lifetime away from daring to speak in public (or even in private), I do not remember much about my abbreviated time at Butternut except a green crayon incident. The crayon was the offending instrument I used the only time I got into trouble that year, one of the few times I have ever been in trouble in my life, period. I was sitting at a table with other children as we colored (what else?). For some insane reason, I felt the urge to take my green crayon and scribble all over the non-green drawing of the kid closest to me; my first memory of “deliberate” sin, I guess you could say.

As you might imagine the nameless child was aghast and started crying, calling out for Ms. Farmer. She took this in stride with her larger view of the relevance of such incidents but certainly did inform my mother, who expressed her surprise but did not dole out any meaningful punishment. My shame and embarrassment were enough; for the first time, I was the bad guy. (The Greek Furies of classical literature, which demand justice for the improper acts of mortals, got even with me years later when my first car was painted a nauseating green.)

It is a bit unnerving to consider the spontaneous cruelty welling up inside of me at that moment when I decided the world around me should be green. Was it a metaphor for some seething envy? It was not the last time I would experience such emotions. Sometimes in life I have just been…mad, wanting to lash out at those around me or toss out a spitball of spite, feeling some indefinable weight of injustice or the snare of some tightly-woven conspiracy intended to keep me mediocre.

If I have learned anything in nearly four decades of life, it is that the residual darkness I possess in the crevices of my soul will from time to time demand its hour upon the stage. My lingering efforts to develop and refine qualities such as character, discipline and maturity play a large part in determining to what extent the curtain rises or falls on its performance.

As one of my seminary professors, Dr. Chuck Killian, once remarked, “Our only boast is in God’s mercy. Most of us will never get what we deserve. We’ll get grace.” And most of the time, grace has given shelter for my shame. An authentic response to such grace goes a long way toward gradually suffocating that internal darkness.


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