Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Herman J

We called him Herman J. We didn't know what his real name was. We didn't bother to find out. He was skinny and pimply and greasy and probably poor. He was new to our 8th grade bus. I never knew where he lived: he got on in the morning before me and got off after me in the afternoon. Looking back, I see now that he was miserable. Angry. Wretched.

My friends teased him because of things he couldn't help. The teasing wasn't relentless in that it didn't last long - not hours even many minutes really. It was relentless in that it was just a bit at a time...daily. All they'd do is briefly welcome him onto the bus. "Hi Herman J!" "How are ya Herman J!" "How was school today, Herman J?" He wouldn't answer. He'd just look out the window.

We had one of each in our group:
the popular jock, the kid with the job, the one who could get a girlfriend and a few other assorted kids. I was the "Christian" of the group, and felt the tug of conscience about the daily bus rides. I never really joined in, but I never told them to stop either. I'd just look on quietly from the sidelines, perhaps grinning a little.  Why risk alienation from my friends defending someone I didn't even know?

One day after school, Herman J showed up in the village. Our village. With our bmx bikes, our skateboards, our dime store, our Welch's grape soda. What was he doing here? He didn't fit here.

Somehow, an altercation had started brewing between him and the guys, and the slow percolation finally became the rapid fire exchange.

"Where's your bike, Herman J?"
"Leave me alone!"
"Where's your dad, Herman J?"
"Shut up!"
"What's wrong, Herman J?"

He finally exploded, "Why can't you leave me alone! I just want to be left alone! Why do you call me that?"

Suddenly I heard myself joining in, saying, with all the suave 'cool' of a con who knows how to handle himself in a pinch, "well, what is your name then?"

"Peter! My name is Peter!" He was in a rage, trembling just inches from my face.

Now I was in it. My heart pounding at the confrontation, but not wanting to back down in front of the guys, I  tossed out a nonchalant, "Oh, so we can call you Peter J, now." The guys guffawed. Herman/Peter's face was twisted in hurt, but I knew I had to get outta Dodge before it got serious, so I brushed past his quivering shoulder and...walked...away...in triumph. I never saw his expression but it must have been awful.

I remember the feeling of his eyes boring into the back of my head. I was sure he was going to charge me from behind and then - what? I was probably as skinny as he was. The urge to turn and see if he was coming was huge, but I willed myself not to turn - what would my friends think?

He must have stormed off as I walked away. Catching up to me, the guys were amazed. "How did you not turn around?" "Herman was so pissed!" For my part, the adrenaline and the booming heartbeat in my ears had all my attention. "I don't know, I just walked...it's no big deal." Even cooler.

I'd saved my status (even enhanced it) at Peter's expense. I'd craved acceptance by the boys rather than doing right. All of it flew in the face of every Sunday School lesson I'd supposedly learned.

  Jesus said,
 "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
 "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
 "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
 "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
 "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."    Matthew 5:5-10

Jesus said people would hate me when I choose righteousness.

"If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you." John 15: 18-19

I certainly didn't want to go there. 'Safe' with friends was best.

Ugh. Even now, some thirty years later, I'm uncomfortable remembering this episode. I'm ashamed and embarrassed. A moment of triumph? No, a moment of shame. A true low point in my life. Pride is insidious and its out-workings are ugly.

I wish I could have the moment back and do it over again.  I wish I had left him alone...no, actually I wish I had been a 'real man' and reached out and been a friend to a kid who was clearly in need of one.  I wish I had defended the 'poor' and the defenseless. And I wish I could apologize and ask Peter for forgiveness. Not the "I'm sorry if..." variety (as in, "I'm sorry if you are offended by...). No, I'd like to offer the, "I'm sorry that" type (as in "I'm sorry that I hurt you).

Hypocrisy is so easy. It comes so naturally.

Now, my story above is a fairly glaring example of it, but we Christians are capable of way more subtlety in our hypocrisy, aren't we? We blind ourselves with our rationalizations and we, for instance, excuse ourselves for things like gossip in the name of 'prayer requests' and skip prayer in the name of 'tired from doing ministry.'

Maybe you are feeling the tug of conscience (like I am even as I type this) because you know there is something you need to change or fix up or repent of but you know you don't want to do it. Yeah, I know you don't want to...safe with 'friends' is best. Well, then don't read this scripture:

"I hate, I despise your feasts,
   and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies...
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
   to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
   and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
Amos 5:21, 23-24

And don't click here.

Anyway, I wish I could make amends with Peter, but I can't. I can, though, with God's help, crucify the sin in my life and ask Him to help me keep in step with the Spirit. I'm thinking right now of something that I should have done a long time ago...are you?


  1. well... I tried not to read the scripture and the rebel in me had to click on the link... and for all of God's grace demonstrated to me here in this blog, I give thanks.

  2. Chris... blogs like this are incredibly valuable to me as I look for things to share with my kids to help them see a perspective 30 years past where they are now. Thanks for taking the time to put this memory/lesson into words... I'm appreciating your influence in my life.
    and btw, nice remodel.. I really like the header :)

  3. Chris - Thanks for posting this. We are so good at being cruel, and hypocrisy comes easily, as you say. My heart breaks remembering the times I crushed a bruised reed as a younger man. My wife and I have endeavored to teach our sons the beauty of graceful compassion, instead of ugly, arrogant, cruelty.

  4. Thanks guys - I appreciate the feedback. Yeah, every bit of that is real as far as I can remember. I can still smell the bubble gum and the heater on the bus and I can see the grease on Herman's (Peter's) face. What a vivid moment. I wish I could forget it........but if recalling it here will help even one person - it's worth it right?!