If you were here last week I introduced you to two of my "teachers" in life: Sandy and Tom. Perhaps they might have seemed to be unlikely candidates for the role. They were just teenagers and called delinquents on top of that, but this mattered not at all. I learned much from them, and perhaps the primary lesson was this: as we are shown love, the better able we are | to return it in kind.
Today let me tell you about Jeff, who was ten and our first foster child.
For one that young Jeff had been in enough trouble that he was made a ward of the juvenile court. He definitely had an "attitude" problem along with an extensive vocabulary of four-letter words which he would trot out whenever he wanted to make a point or to show off. He was a smoker, though he had that habit crimped with us. He didn't like school and was failing his subjects.
On the other side of the ledger Jeff was good-looking and could be as charming as any child of that age. His IQ was 139, well above average. Sometimes he would even let that tough guy projection slip a bit. I recall one night when I read him a story and he sat there next to me on the couch, head on my shoulder, as he fell asleep. No matter what image he tried to project, there was still a little boy at the core.
Jeff's confident exterior was really a cover-up for insecurity and self-doubts. The more I came to know about his background, the more I understood why he probably felt the way he did.
His parents were divorced while he was very young, primarily because of his mother's alcoholism. His father was given custody of Jeff and his mother rarely saw him even though she lived nearby. In time his father remarried and so he then lived with his father and stepmother. After a while things soured in that relationship, too.
Jeff's father felt he couldn't handle the responsibility for two growing boys at this point in his life, so he left Jeff and his brother with his new wife from whom he was separating. A year later, and not long before he came to us, Jeff's stepmother married her live-in boyfriend. So Jeff ended up living with a stepmother and a stepfather, though his real parents were still in the area.
He bounced around like a ping pong ball between persons who didn't want him, or had too many problems of their own to really function as parents.
Now at that time the juvenile judge in that county, the only juvenile judge, felt that one effective technique for reforming kids was to make public the adjudications in his courtroom. This was the "stocks" approach where the offending party was held up to public ridicule and, hopefully, shamed into change. If that method was ever successful, it's unlikely that would have been with sensitive children whose ego strength was very fragile.
When Jeff went to court, both his hearing and its outcome was reported in the local newspaper, including his curfew and reporting requirements. In a small town everybody reads the paper cover-to-cover, so the court news can hardly be missed. Unlike the city and its anonymity, sometimes people know too much about the business of others for anyone's good.
We had high hopes that when Jeff came to live with us it would allow him to make a new start. We weren't his parents, or even family, but we were committed to providing the most supportive home we could. He would be in a new school and we, and even Jeff, felt optimistic when he went off to the elementary just a few blocks away. We packed his lunch with an extra brownie for that first day.
I came back from church early that Monday so that I could be home when Jeff got back in the afternoon. I could see, however, that there was something wrong just the way he was walking slowly down the sidewalk, alone, with his eyes cast downward.
I asked him what was wrong, but he didn't say anything at first. Finally, he looked up at me and said, "On the playground hardly any kids would play with me. They said their mothers saw my name in the paper and to stay away from me. They said I was bad." And with that, one single tear came down and streaked his cheek.
Perhaps other parents meant well and only tried to look out for their own, but that day some sat in judgment of a little boy who could be good, and wanted to be. They took the scant information they had, deemed him "incorrigible," and crushed the new spark of life within him. On that day he had a label put on him and it was uphill from there the entire time he was with us.
Judgment most often turns out to be unloving criticism of another. It is not intended to bring about change, but to categorize persons and put them in a box. It is a closed discussion. Sometimes it's not intended to be mean-spirited, but damage may still result from making an assessment on incomplete information. The problem is seeing something from one vantage point and making the assumption that the situation is known fully. This was how those parents—some of whom were our neighbors—dealt with little Jeff, and it hurt him deeply.
We have but one pair of eyes and, while they may serve us well, they limit our perspective to just one view: our view. We can never see life from exactly from the same angle that another sees it. We can never experience the same circumstances that someone else knows, so it is impossible to understand completely why they do what they do. The trouble is that we think we know.
Our Old Testament lesson for today comes from the story of Jacob and his sons. It was a large family yet, of all his sons, Jacob loved his youngest son the most for he was born to him in his old age. The other sons were aware of their father's special affection for Joseph. In fact, the more their father loved Joseph, the more they resented their brother. Joseph had never wished them harm, but this didn't matter. His intentions were not at issue. Their argument was not really with him, but with their father. Their anger, however, fell on their sibling. So they criticized him and sought his downfall.
It wasn't Joseph's fault that his father loved him so. He didn't do anything to lord it over his brothers. He didn't flaunt his father's favor before them. He simply accepted it for the fact it was. He, too, loved his father and there was a closeness which could not be denied.
The other brothers had feelings as well. They can't be criticized for regretting that they didn't have quite the same spot in their father's heart as Joseph. That was true, but he cared deeply for each of them and was generous. No, they can't be faulted for their feelings, for feelings are what they are. It was how those feelings came out that was truly unfortunate.
So it was that the brothers sold Joseph into slavery to a band of traders, who eventually transported the young man to Egypt and resold him there. He was now a piece of merchandise and treated as such. The brothers made a judgment about the youngest of them and deemed him expendable.
Which of us hasn't been judged in much the same way. Our particular circumstances may not have been like Joseph's, but the hurt was probably similar. Even when our actions can rightly be called into question, we are still deeply wounded when another passes judgment on us. It is most often over and done with before we can even impact on that decision. We're struck with it when it's unfair.
Often the scars of judgment go deep and affect a person for days or even weeks to come; sometimes the impact stays for years or even a lifetime. Especially when such judgments are made while we're young, we may forget the particular circumstances or even the persons involved; yet, their conclusions about us may linger forever in our subconscious, damaging our self-concept all that time.
A university did an interesting study once in an inner-city elementary school. The full plan was known only to the principal and not to the teachers. What they did was to give all the children a test of aptitude and abilities, but then they threw away the results. The researchers divided the children randomly into new classes and told the teachers they either had a room full of children with potential and promise or ones below average and limited.
At the end of the year the children of promise were just that. These classes were enjoying unexpected success and their teachers were gratified that they had been given the opportunity to work with the "gifted" kids. On the other hand, the "limited" classes scored significantly lower on the real test given everyone at the end of the year. There was a bleaker atmosphere in the classroom and the teachers indicated they were less satisfied in their work. The difference wasn't initially in the children; it was in the label that was placed upon them.
In the end it becomes evident that the other brothers misjudged Joseph. Later they were reunited in Egypt and it was he who kept them alive in a time of famine, for he had become a powerful man in his adopted homeland. The earlier actions of the brothers could be considered unpardonable, but Joseph had in him the capacity of forgiveness for even such a grievous wrong. Maybe it was the love of his father for him that finally allowed Joseph to love those by whom he had been hurt. (Is this story a parable about God and us as well?)
We had Jeff with us but five months and then he was returned to the only place they could send him: with a stepmother and stepfather. I once heard Jeff was in prison somewhere. If that's true it may be partially due to the judgment that others passed on him, now many years ago.
What I learned from this "teacher" in my life is that great harm can result from a negative label that is placed too quickly upon a person. I also came to see that how we are perceived by others is how we tend to become—and that for good or for bad.
Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church