I was afraid to go into Junior High School. Horror stories filled my young head about the “big kids” who really didn’t like little guys like me. We heard stories about getting our pants pulled down in front of girls. Much of what I lived in fear of never took place. Normal stuff happened like kids sticking out their foot and trying to trip you or someone saying something dumb to make you feel even dumber.
The first month of Junior High seemed to go by without much of a problem so I began to think I might have successfully made it through the dreaded season of Junior High initiation.
Each morning all the kids who were bused to school would have to meet in the cafeteria and wait until class started. I was never really sure why we were not allowed to play on the playground, but I was just a kid – what did I know?
There were rules for all of us held captive in the cafeteria each morning. No talking and no eating were allowed. Our lives were reduced to a very abnormal activity for someone our age - motionlessness.
One morning on the school bus a kid gave me a stick of gum. I chewed the life out of that gum on the way to school and honestly forgot it was in my mouth. I was oblivious to the fact that I was breaking one of the cafeteria commandments.
Each morning a teacher would be assigned to monitor our pre-class holding cell of non-activity. On this particular morning Mr. Jones (I have changed his name just in case he might still be alive) was the teacher assigned to cafeteria duty. He was a very handsome man. All the girls liked him and surrounded him like an admiring human necklace. To the guys it was kind of sickening since we were no competition for Mr. Jones. At this stage in our development we were only skinny/fat/tall/short little nerds who had yet to come into our own.
About ten minutes into our cafeteria time, I was minding my own business when the really deep and manly voice of Mr. Jones boomed out and echoed off the walls and linoleum floors of the cafeteria. Whenever Mr. Jones spoke like this we knew he was about to emotionally filet some poor kid. All of us sucked in our collective breath and wondered who would get it this morning.
“You, over there - chewing the gum – look at me!” I was so glad it wasn’t me until I realized I was actually chewing the gum given to me on the bus forty-five minutes earlier. He had to be talking about someone else so I didn’t look up.
Mr. Jones bellowed again, “You, Elkins, look at me!”
At that moment the most frightful thing that could ever happen to a Junior High kid was taking place, I was being noticed. A couple of things began to happen. I wanted to go to the bathroom really bad but held it. My bowels were doing those funny things that happen when you are home sick with the flu and need to find a toilet really fast. On the other end of my physiological reaction was the desire to heave up the oatmeal mom made for me earlier that morning, along with the toast, the glass of milk and the cookie I snuck out of the cookie jar. I played the man, pinched both ends shut and looked up.
As my eyes met the gaze of Mr. Jones he said, “Yeah, you, Elkins, stand up.” As I slowly rose the entire cafeteria went silent. Junior High kids were about to witness a public execution so being quiet and obedient in times like this was essential for their personal survival.
My life, all 12 years of it, was now flashing before my eyes. Grown ups said this is what happens just before a person is about to die and they were right. Then the snickers started coming from all across the cafeteria. I was being abandoned and left alone in the greatest moment of shame I had ever experienced. It was about to get much worse.
Mr. Jones then issued a command, “Elkins, I want you to get down on all fours and crawl over to me like a dog.” What? I wanted to protest, but only knew I needed obey the teacher. Slowly I got down on the dirty, un-mopped cafeteria floor, and began to crawl on all fours towards Mr. Jones. The kid’s snickers had now become outright laughter. Mr. Jones seemed to be feeding off his audience like a comedian working a room. As I shuffled across the floor my knees and hands became black with the dirt, grease and food crumbs that litter a school cafeteria floor.
I started my long, crawling journey towards Mr. Jones. It took a couple of minutes to make the journey. It felt like a lifetime. I wanted to hide. I wanted to be gone. I wanted to die.
As I finally came to a stop at the feet of Mr. Jones he had one final command. “Elkins, crawl over to that garbage can and spit out your gum.” In a numbed response of obedience, I crawled over to the garbage can and spit out my gum. At least this torture and humiliation was over, I thought, but Mr. Jones was not done with me.
“Now, get back down on the floor and crawl back to your seat.” Again, a crawl of humiliation was assigned to me and back across the dirty floor and through the mocking laughter of my classmates I went. As I reached my seat, I sat down emotionally destroyed. As a 12 year-old kid, I felt my life was over. I had no idea how to get out of the hole that Mr. Jones dug for me. The rest of the day I lived in an emotional state of numbness. I heard people speaking and felt my feet on the ground, but I was fully disconnected from reality. I was still that way when I got home later that afternoon.
As a family, we always ate dinner together. I was usually the noisy one at the table. On this particular night, I carried my numbness and silence to the table. About half way through dinner my dad asked me what was wrong. The last thing I wanted to do was recall the events of the day. When I hesitated dad pressed me to answer because he could see something was terribly wrong.
I spent the next few moments sharing with my family what happened to me. That night I didn’t finish my dinner and went off to bed early. The stress of the day had taken a physical toll on my young body, along with the emotional toll on my developing self-image.
Fifty years have passed since that humiliating incident in the cafeteria. I had parked the pain of that day deep within my heart. Over the years, God had me pray for Mr. Jones. I did not know what to feel about him. As a kid, I was told to respect and trust my elders, yet here was a man who had deeply violated another human being. Today, he would be fired and possibly brought up on charges of child abuse. As the years went by I began to add blessings to my prayers for Mr. Jones.
Somewhere near the forty-year anniversary of this event my wife and I were praying and this incident came to the surface. As Jan and I returned to that day in prayer, Jan prayed “Jesus, come and reveal your truth.”
As I relived that painful crawl on the dirty floor, I was shocked to actually see the Lord. He was there that day. He was down on all fours with me – crawling on the dirty floor beside me. He wasn’t looking at Mr. Jones or the laughing kids. His eyes were fixed on me.
At first I did not know what to think of the image I was seeing. Jesus had crawled with me all the way over to Mr. Jones. His robe was getting dirty. His hands slide through the same grease and dirt as my hands. He listened to the hurtful and demeaning words of Mr. Jones. Jesus was there at the garbage can as I spit out my gum “like a dog” and he was there crawling with me all the way back to my seat. I was never alone in my humiliation.
What came next was even more amazing. Jan asked, “Is the Lord saying anything to you?” Again, I paused, and waited to hear. The Lord spoke and said, “Garris, what you experienced that day was very painful, but I always provide purpose in the midst of your pain. For the last fifty years Mr. Jones had no one to pray for him. You have prayed for him and I have used those prayers in his life. My purpose was fulfilled in the midst of your pain.”
As those words sunk deep into my spirit I began to see my suffering that day, and all the other times of personal suffering, in a completely different light. I began to realize no suffering we experience is ever lost in a purposeless place. God is always working somewhere in our suffering for a higher good.
Suffering links us to Christ in a unique way. Many of us look at suffering and try to remove it from our memory by turning our back on its presence. That never works. Suffering not yielded to God can fester and become a place of sickness instead of freedom.
The suffering of Jesus was so real that when he saw the Cross approaching he asked the Father if there was another way possible. Thankfully, Jesus embraced his suffering so we could be free in the midst of ours. The humanity of Christ spoke out that day in the Garden of Gethsemane and brought us a real and honest look at personal pain.
Some people fight suffering. Jesus embraced it. If we can embrace our suffering, and find Jesus in that experience, we will begin see the hope of resurrection hidden somewhere in the pain. A life focused only on the pain of suffering – without Jesus in the picture - will become a life absent of the songs of worship and deliverance that are birthed in the bowels of suffering.
Paul said in Romans 8:17, “And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.” In other words, we can’t escape the reality of suffering if we are in route to the inheritance God has planned for us.
Somewhere in each season of suffering there exists the comfort of God. In 2 Corinthians 1:7 Paul writes, “We are confident that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in the comfort God gives us.” Many miss this comfort because they look for the removal of the pain or seek punishment of the offender.
That day on the cafeteria floor I was not suffering alone. Jesus was crawling with me through the shame, the dirt and the mockery. The first time around, I missed this fact and carried the burden of suffering alone. Years later, Jesus showed me he was always there with me. I was never alone. That knowledge has changed how I now live in the midst of suffering. His promise to us is that he will never leave us or forsake us – ever.
Today, I thank God for Mr. Jones. My experience with a dysfunctional teacher has turned out to be a great blessing in my life. I have learned so much about the heart of God from the pain I experienced that day. This is the desired goal for any follower of Christ - that we would find Jesus in the midst of our most painful experiences.