This week my son had a challenging experience with the neighborhood kids. Also, this week I received an email from a friend and she shared with me the pain of losing a friend from gun violence; someone too young to die; someone too valuable to die. I don't know why, but as I thought about her pain, her journey and the reality of what my son was facing, I was taken back to the summer of 1982. I was 11 years old and my family moved from Arkansas back to central Texas, where I had lived most of my grade-school years. As a pre-teen with emerging puberty and unavoidable insecurity, it felt like a jungle; obviously not the natural terrain, but the relational and emotional terrain. I was going to live in that jungle; you know... live in a new neighborhood, make new friends and attend a new school. I liked "new". I hated "new". Even as a kid we find our love/hate relationship with change.
I was a loner in my childhood years and the reality of living in a new jungle surrounded by "the locals", simply reinforced my emotional isolation. It was where I felt the safest. One day, as I was exploring this jungle on my bike, the doubts I had about this new dense, dark place, and the dangers that loomed hidden, were validated as truths. When exploring this uncharted dark place, damp with uncertainty, humid with fear and bustling with adventure, I began to get a sense of my new surroundings. While biking down a particular street, imagining my bike to be a rugged all-terrain vehicle and a machete in hand; I saw on the horizon a "local", a "native of the jungle". He seemed innocent enough. He told me his name was Dennis. He was just another boy; slightly younger than me. I say "just" because I later discovered that there were many "boys" in this jungle. If Peter Pan had been present, this group of "locals" would have been the "lost boys". But, there we were: he - a Titan of the jungle and me - the small-framed, thin and emotionally fragile explorer, simply trying to find normal in my new jungle. Dennis proceeded to tell me to watch out because he and the other unnamed Titans would beat me up if I did anything wrong. Already emotionally insecure, experiencing my own internal jungle called puberty and facing the overwhelming reality of all things being new, it did not take me long to avoid all the signs of danger in my new neighborhood; mainly, the local people! I survived that summer.
My son will survive his challenges. My friend who lost a friend will survive her challenges. How? By applying the same skills I had learned while playing Pitfall on my Atari 2600. Pitfall Harry survived by running fast, swinging on vines and triumphing over the alligators. In playing that game (one of the hottest games in 1982), I felt like Pitfall Harry. I learned to emotionally run fast, swing on the vines and overcome the alligators.
As time went by, one day I was thrust into a deeper part of this new jungle - the first day of 6th grade! Can anything be more frightening to an 11-year-old? New friends, puberty, girls, social pressure, cafeteria cliques and new teachers... Yeah, I had ventured deeper into the jungle and I wasn't sure the light of the sun could penetrate this place. It was emotionally dark and as one wrought with the pressures of growing up, I was not familiar with the skills needed to navigate dark places; much less dark emotional jungles. And then it happened... I felt the warmth of a ray of sunshine. I smiled. Genuine joy came over. My ray of sunshine was named Mike Bever (pronounced Beaver). He was a smaller framed young local; a young man familiar with the jungle and all that came with it. He knew all the "cool" kids. He knew where to sit in the cafeteria. He knew who the pretty girls were. He knew which kids to pick for the dodge-ball game at recess. Basically, Mike was teaching me how to survive in the jungle. He was Tarzan and I was the awkward new kid - not cool enough, charismatic enough, rich enough, smart enough, fast enough, strong enough, talented enough or funny enough to create my own space in the jungle. So I lived in the shadowy space created by Bever. I was average Pitfall Harry. Small frame. Red hair. Lots and lots of freckles. My mom called them angel kisses, but that was her best loving attempt to help me deal with the never-ending emotional embarrassment of having brown pinholes all over my body. I HATED freckles. Now, in my mid 40's they cover up skin blemishes. So yes, they are angel kisses.
Mike and I were never best friends, but I stayed close enough to find safety; but not too close that I couldn't find my own "coolness". As we progressed through middle school and into high school, Mike and I each found our own group of friends. We navigated to different parts of the jungle and we rarely saw each other, except in the passing hallways of high school or at a Friday Night Lights Texas High School football game. When we saw each other, we would give the glancing head nod, like two teenage men navigating the jungle as successfully as possible. That was our new life until the fall of 1988. It was an early Saturday morning. I was 17 and I was familiar with the jungle. I had become one of the locals. I had just finished eating some cereal and my mom was cleaning the house. There was a crisp feel to the air. Windows were open. Country music was playing - probably George Jones or Conway Twitty - two of my mom's favorite singers. The phone rang. (You remember the kind of phones connected with a cable and mounted on a wall?) I answered it. It was Jerry Ferguson. Jerry was a high school friend who lived in a different part of the jungle. He shared with me the news that disrupted the security and safety of my now all-too-familiar jungle. Bever had died. Back in those days, it was not uncommon for my high school mates to drive deeper into the concrete jungle of adolescence - Austin, and hang out and go clubbing. At least that's what we called it in the late 80's/early 90's. One such night when Bever was riding home with a friend; just a couple of miles from his home, the driver fell asleep at the wheel and hit the only tree on the side of the road and Bever was killed. I couldn't believe it. The kid who helped me feel safe, who helped me integrate into this new place and time was gone. Death had taken him out of our jungle. It wasn't supposed to be that way. Death was not allowed in our teenage jungle. We were immortal. All of life was in front of us. Dreams that looked like massive ocean liners on the horizon were inching closer every day. Envisioned ideas of changing the world, laughing our way into adulthood and conquering college - all that seemed important. How could this happen? Days after the call I attended his funeral. Alone. Because at 17, while I had friends in the jungle, survival in the jungle meant I would be alone. I'll never forget driving my small truck, riding by myself and listening to the radio playing Rod Stewart's "Forever Young". How appropriate... Bever would be forever young in our minds. As if life were not hard enough at 11, 15 or 17, and for that matter 46, having a friend die at the all-too-young age of 17 is wrong. Life was also hard in retrospect, because I had no conscious consideration for Jesus, for God or the afterlife. I mean, what do you do with death when you have no context for life? It was also hard because Bever was the one who helped me find my way in the jungle. I'll always be thankful for that friend who reached out to a stranger to make him feel welcomed.
I heard Abdu Murray and Ravi Zacharias speak the other day about finding meaning in a post-truth culture. That's the jungle. Abdu shared a wonderful illustration of how we overcome societal and cultural vertigo found within the jungle. We find reference points that aren't moving. I have to learn and experience that Jesus Christ is the fixed reference point when things disrupt the jungle life. Jesus Christ is the truth, the fixed reference point for how we move past societal and cultural vertigo.
A relevant example of cultural vertigo is found in the historical texts of the Old Testament. It's a fixed reference point of truth found in Isaiah 6. It says, "In the year that King Uzziah died I saw ALSO the Lord high and lifted up..." When we experience jungle disruptions, pain, injustice, embarrassment, shame, anger or disappointment in the theater of life, the fixed reference point of God's reality is how we shake off our vertigo. We need an ALSO moment. When Bever died, I didn't have a fixed reference point of truth or a fixed reference point of God's presence. I did not have an ALSO moment. Therefore, I wandered around the jungle for many months. I tried the reference points of anger, girlfriends, drugs, alcohol and intellectual achievement; only to find that they were not fixed reference points but were mercies of the cultural tide. I had wandered to where my jungle met the ocean. In that place, I kept experiencing the crashing waves of disappointment, confusion, and despair. The fixed reference point to be fruitful and live the life I was created for is Jesus Christ. Wandering and meandering in the jungle one day I found it; a blood-stained tree - a crucifix planted deep and unmovable. Or should I say, it found me? I am learning that the pathway to taking new territory in the jungle and inhabiting that new space is to surrender to Jesus, receive His life, experience His empowering grace and do good. God is good. So any expression of goodness is indeed an incarnation of the living Christ. Mike Bever did good by reaching out to a lost 11-year-old who was unfamiliar with the jungle life. That kindness was a fixed reference point. Jesus Christ is good. His goodness is a fixed reference point. You can navigate the jungle by fixing your eyes on Jesus Christ. And who knows what good thing you will do today; albeit small and easy to overlook, but that which will impact and change the life of another person.
Weep with them that weep.
Rejoice with those who rejoice.