“My strength is made perfect in weakness.” ~ 2 Corinthians 12:9
Note: One of my former students gave me permission to write this “if it might help someone else,” he said. I have changed the names.
I pushed the play button on our answering machine and a familiar voice from the past said, “Hello Craig. This is Judy Butler. Can you give me a call? Joel’s in a dark place.”
Jennifer and I are good friends with Judy and her family, but we have lost touch over the years. We taught or coached almost all her kids. We celebrated the 4th of July at her house which turned out to be a massive water fight sandwiched in between hamburgers and ice cream. All of us went to church together and we got into “good trouble” on occasion.
Joel is Judy’s oldest son. Over thirty years ago, in the very first seventh grade English class I ever taught, I remember standing outside the classroom door as kids walked in. I was paralyzed by fear. It took all my strength to just say “hello” when the kids scampered by.
After the first bell rang, I walked into the cavernous classroom and twenty-five eleven- and twelve-year-old kids snapped to attention and faced the front of the room. “Hello,” I said clearing my throat. “I’m Craig. I’m the new 7th grade language arts teacher.”
A girl in the front row raised her hand. “Yes,” I said. “We do not call teachers by their first names. What’s your name?” “Oh,” I said. I realized I was stepping into the world of adults and responsibility. “My name is Mr. Paschal.”
“How tall are you?’ asked Jenny. “Do you like cows?” asked Ray. Then Joel raised his hand. “Do you like to fish? And are you going to be our football coach?” “Yes, I do like to fish, and I will be your coach.”
So began my introduction to an enduring relationship with my inaugural class.
I called Joel’s mom, and she gave me his cell number. “Will you call him? He’s having dark thoughts and you’re still his coach.” “Is Joel ok with me calling him?” “Yes, but he thinks you’ll be disappointed in him.”
My heart grew heavy thinking how I pushed those kids to be better and better and how hard they worked to try to please me. “Is Joel thinking about taking his life?” “Yes, I don’t know what to do.” “Well, it takes a lot of strength for him to reach out. I will call and I’m not disappointed in him.”
I called Joel’s cell, and it rang and rang and rang. A sad, heavy voice picked up, “Hello, this is Joel.” “Joel, this is Coach. It’s good to hear your voice.” “Yours too.” “What’s going on Joel?”
“I don’t know Coach. I’ve never felt this way before. I just feel so heavy. The darkness just closes in on me and I can’t get rid of it. I’ve always been able to beat everything but not this. I feel so weak and helpless.”
“Joel, it took a lot of strength for you to reach out to your mom and answer this call. You’re not weak you’re strong.” “I’m broken. Have you ever been broken Coach?” “Yes, there have been years where it’s been hard for me to get out of bed.”
“The pain is so great. I just can’t take it anymore,” Joel said. “Have you thought about taking your life?” I asked. “Yes. Last night was really bad.” “I’m glad you’re here. Your life is important. And I know your family loves you and I do too,” I said.
“You were my first football Coach. We won every game. I didn’t think we’d ever lose. Now this. I can’t beat it.” “Sometimes we need help, Joel. Would you be willing to see a counselor or a therapist?” “It’s hard to admit I need help, but I’ll do anything right now. I’m broken.”
It is hard to admit when we are broken and powerless. Step one of the Twelve Steps says, “We admit that we are powerless, that our life has become unmanageable.” Brennan Manning in his book Abba’s Child writes that it is one thing to feel loved by friends, family, and God when our life is together, and our support systems are in place. “When we are strong, on top, in control, and as the Celts say, ‘in fine form’ a sense of security crystallizes.’ But what happens when life falls through the cracks? What happens when we fail, when we break, and the pain suffocates us? What happens when we come face to face with the human condition?” writes Manning.
Where do we turn when we break?
“Do you remember the first book we read in the seventh grade Joel? The Outsiders?” “Yeah, that was a good book.” “In the first scene, Pony Boy walks out of the darkness of the movie theater into the light. That’s what we can do together. We’re still a team and we can lean on each other.”
“This darkness is so heavy. I’ll do anything to get rid of it.”
“Can I drive up to see you, Joel?” “Yes, that would be fine.” “We could get something to eat, and then I’d like to take you to see a mental health counselor. Would you be willing to do that?” “I’ll go.”
Nicholas Harnan wrote, “Our brokenness is what needs to be accepted. Unfortunately, this is what we tend to reject. This painful vulnerability is the characteristic feature of our humanity that most needs to be embraced in order to restore our human condition to a healed state.”
Paul said, “When I’m weak, you are strong,” (2 Corinthians 12:9). When we are broken, fallen, or struggling God does not stop loving us. Our spiritual journey begins anew with the acceptance of our wounded self, says Manning.
Last week, Joel and I, former player and coach, former student and teacher, walked into a mental health clinic together. We took a step into the sunshine and out of the darkness; the road will be long. Joel’s powerlessness brought us back together as Nouwen says in a “bond of friendship and love.”
When we our weak, God’s grace is strong. May we surrender to the healing power of the Spirit’s love.
Blessings and peace,