Life is too short not to speak up. Noxious fumes of unprocessed grief quietly kill the silent. And while there’s a lot of life to be lived outside the confines of crippling timidity, many leave the hibernating beast of sorrow to snore undisturbed for fear of what it would do to them if woken.
One of my favorite quotes comes from a friend of the late Rich Mullins. In a documentary of his life one of his friends recounts a time when Rich sang a new song that he’d written. The song was so shockingly raw and vulnerable, that Rich’s friend was blown away that he was not only able to write it, but also to sing it. Rich said “All these songs are in me. It’s just whether or not I have the guts to pull them out.” His solemn friend later added, “It’s fortunate for all of us that Rich had the guts.”
This post is a painful thing for me to write about. We all have a few cringe worthy moments that we’d like to forget but unfortunately some of us have become known for the stupid thing we’d like to forget. It would be grand if life had a command z button.
There are things in life that we would rather not be notorious for. I did something really stupid and have now become notorious for it.
Not just now, but back in 2004.
My wife and I spent the 2000’s in vocational student ministry. It was an amazing season of life with our first ministry in northern Indiana from 2000-2002…
…central Ohio between 2000-2006…
…and in Pittsburgh from 2008-2010.
Even before that, I grew up in the church and student ministry was the highlight reel of my early Christian experience.
Okay, let’s set the time machine back to 2004.
We’d been in central Ohio for two years, and my wife was nine months pregnant with our third child who is now 13. We were part of a really great church and very supportive pastor who trusted me with the students. We had a lady as a part of our student ministry leadership team whose son was an amateur skater. She was really excited about reaching skaters and had a vision to build a skatepark on our property. She had designs written up, liability forms created, and even asked a carpenter in our church to help her. By the time it was done, it looked great!
Our student ministry consisted of 40 to 50 students on a weekly basis but after we built it we ramped up to 150+ students weekly because some influential kids brought all their friends. One problem was that there weren’t enough leaders to support the amount of kids that were coming. We had around 8 to 10 leaders at that point but we needed at least 30-40.
Everything seemed so dangerous and risky but I loved every minute of it. This was the way student ministry was supposed to be — risk = fun, or so I thought. I was way more high risk then, than I am now. Our music got louder. The teachings were more engaging. The energy was great. The games got messier and a lot more crazy. Not having enough leaders meant that I was doing most of the ministry by myself. I simply did not know how to raise people up or hand things off for that matter.
In typical fashion, I was burning the candle at both ends and pushing everything to the last minute. One thing that always seemed so hard to come up with were mixers and games to engage kids at the beginning of the service. I was running out of ideas and found what seemed to be a great idea from a video I found online. This was before the days of YouTube by the way. I found this particular video off of stupidvideos.com and bought a lifetime membership for $17.
What a deal!
The video showed a guy downing an entire Costco size bottle of Listerine. I never thought about what was in Listerine but I’d always heard you shouldn’t swallow it. Being a bit of a quiet rebel, I would always swallow it as a kid. I simply did not know what was actually in mouthwash.
When our service started that Wednesday night in August 2004, I had brought a medium sized bottle of Listerine and dared one of the kids to drink it for five dollars. This sounds so stupid as I’m typing this out, and it was, but I did not have good judgment then, or people telling me not to be an idiot. This was par for the course if you’d seen everything that went down at church camp. A redhead 15-year-old named Spenser was one of the many skater kids that raised his hand. He rushed the stage and downed the whole bottle in 5 seconds. Everybody seemed to think it was the funniest thing in the world but we had no idea what was going to happen to Spencer. Everything was great…
…that is, until at the end of the service Spencer passed out and hit his head on the chair on the way down to the ground. All I remember is that he started yelling…
“I can’t see! I can’t feel my legs!”
Luckily for us, 14-year-old Kyle started running down the hallway shouting “Somebody call an ambulance! Spencer is dying!” He ran all the way down the hallway, into the main building, and into the auditorium where the adults were enjoying their quiet Wednesday night prayer meeting and informed the saints that Spencer was dying and someone needed to call 911.
There were probably 20 calls to 911 for poor Spencer.
We only had four leaders that night including myself with a group of over 200 teenagers. One of our adult helpers was in the main auditorium when Kyle ran in. He was a surgeon and quickly came back to the youth room. He said we should call the squad but we were already loading him up into my van so he jumped in with us to the hospital which was about 3 miles away.
When they admitted him into the ER they checked him over and let us know that there wasn’t anything they could do for him except wait, because it was already well into his system. He had been poisoned and was also really drunk being that Listerine is just under 25% alcohol. After an hour he was back to his normal self and thought it was hilarious. He was the only one in the room laughing. The doctors and parents all looked at me and each other like they were trying to figure out which one of them was going to kill me.
Spencer’s parents didn’t press charges, although I’m sure they thought long and hard about it. There was a social worker that showed up the following day at the office. I wasn’t there because I was ashamed and needed to hide out for a day or two. Her son was one of the skaters in attendance and had also raised a willing hand to drink the poison. She threatened the church with a lawsuit if I wasn’t fired immediately. In all reality, I should have been fired. My pastor was very gracious to me and did not let me go.
Everything changed after that. The skate park went away because of too much liability. We went from 150+ students down to 30. Most of the student ministry leaders quit as well. The parents didn’t charge me but the newly elected prosecutor did. I had to hire a lawyer, go to court, pay a fine, and was given a 4th degree misdemeanor. I could have gotten the same thing for cursing in public but I’ve had to explain myself at every job interview since. It was a $5000 mistake that I’ll never forget.
2004 was the best and worst year of my life at that point.
The story became the stuff of legend in the circles that I ran in. Every youth pastor thought it was hilarious but I shuddered every time someone brought it up…
I live in Missouri now and friend of mine who is a missionary was raising support in Ohio. I saw him at church a few months back and he came up to me and said “Holman, I didn’t know you were famous!” A ‘loving’ pastor friend of mine used this as an illustration in a message he preached about the dangers of hiring a young youth pastor. This guy was even so kind to mention me by name!
Outside of this, it’s been a few years since someone I know has brought it up, until this past Monday, that is. I was at a conference around Atlanta and ran into a guy that I went to school with. He was a few years ahead of me so I didn’t know him that well, but I’ve heard his name a lot and he’s heard mine. We were talking in the lobby before the first session started and he couldn’t remember where he knew me from.
Where do I know you from? Wait a minute… you’re the guy that poisoned that kid with Listerine!
Me: Yeah, I wish I could just forget that whole thing happened.
Man, it’s unfortunate that’s what you’re known for.
Me: Is that what I’m really known for?
I shouldn’t have brought it up.
** Conversation awkwardly ends. We both walk away.**
I’m a kind person but I’ve never wanted to punch someone so hard in my life. I was stunned that someone that barely knew me chose to say that over anything else. I know that he is unaware of the back story but being over 40 means you’ve become accustomed to the pleasant necessities of small talk. I would’ve much rather talked about the school we both attended, friends we both knew and loved, our families, or what God is doing in our lives.
Maybe he was just trying to be funny, or maybe he’s just a jerk. I don’t know which one but what I do know is that it hurt — a lot.
It affected the whole first day of the conference but I kept it to myself. When I woke up the next morning I was having breakfast with one of my coworkers in the hotel we were staying in and he saw that I wasn’t quite myself. After inquiring I told him what had happened and said I felt like God was wanting me to confront him, to which he agreed. We prayed together. I prayed again when I got to the conference. I told God I was willing to confront him about it but I didn’t want to. The first couple hours went by and my desire to confront him dwindled.
I knew that God was speaking to me when I received a text message from a friend that said something about the righteous being bold as lions. I knew that God was really shouting at me when I read a devotional that morning that talked about people that bless and wound others unaware. I prayed one last time and told the Lord that if I saw him I would say something to him.
Everyone at the conference had assigned seating for meals and we’d had a total of three meals there but I hadn’t noticed that his table was right beside ours the entire time. I saw him at his table talking with his group and waited till they finished. I did confront him about the fact that what he said was hurtful and he received it and apologized, but not graciously. It wasn’t the response that I wanted, but that was not the point. I’ve never told anyone who has brought it up that it was a very painful thing to experience and that I don’t laugh at it like others do.
Lately I’ve been praying a very dangerous prayer.
“Father, make me more like Jesus by whatever means necessary.”
One thing I’ve always struggled with is boldness. I don’t like leaving people indifferent so conflict does not come naturally. I really had to step outside of my comfort zone to confront him. After I confronted him, I immediately felt better. I felt like God had answered my prayer of making me more like Jesus and gave me assurance that it was indeed the right thing to do.
I’m in the hospitality business so I always have gum or mints on me. This particular day I did not have pack of gum but I did have a travel size bottle of mouthwash. I didn’t take it with me as a lucky charm, or for symbolism, bur I had put it in my pocket in my hotel room not thinking anything about it. When I was emptying my pockets out later that day I took out the bottle of mouthwash from my pocket and held in my hand and noticed that it was empty.
I felt so certain of God’s love for me in that moment as the empty bottle quoted Romans 8:1, in essence, “there is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.”
There are things in life that we would rather not be notorious for, but God doesn’t waste an ounce of our pain or mistakes. One of His best ways of communicating His love to us is by speaking to our most intimate wounds. Jesus has a way of letting a 14 year wound fester because sometimes that is the only way to really experience the full force of his forgiveness.
I can never look at that experience without wincing but I am no longer a slave to the fear it once dominated me with. If we see each other sometime after you read this post, please know that this was very painful for me to write, and that I will never joke about it or take kindly to jesting. I’d love to sit down and talk with you in person about it and show you how God can speak out of the most intimate wounds of our life, but I will never laugh at it.
I wrote it for my healing and also to give you a few things as well.
- Be human.
We’ve all made mistakes. Some are great at laughing it off and some are not. Some forget that they’ve made mistakes themselves and look at others like they’re some sub human race for not living up to their standard of perfection.
- Be kind.
You never know what others have been through when you meet them. Take into account that the words you choose may be the exact opposite of what needs to be said. Considering someone’s feelings is one of the most human things you can do. That story you love to tell at someone else’s expense got old after the first telling. Also, they don’t think it’s funny when you bring it up so stop it.
- Be bold.
To the meek: Life is too short not to speak up. The prison cell you’re in only locks from the inside. If you are in Christ, what’s behind you pales in comparison to the Spirit of God that is in you today. You have a brand new identity, which means that you are not what others say, or what you consume, or what you’ve done. You are no longer a slave to fear. You are an adopted child of God. You are what He says you are.
In the end, don’t let what you are regretfully notorious for define you. Know that Jesus doesn’t bend a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick. He will never hold it against you but He is the ultimate DIY guy as well. He doesn’t waste a thing from the job site — even our deepest mistakes.