I nearly fell as I sat down on the sagging stained couch, and immediately a strong smell of urine filled the air. The blue-eyed six-year-old with curly blonde locks who could easily pass for a cherub in some medieval painting sat transfixed, killing one on-screen zombie after another . When he ran out of ammunition, a particularly sadistic chainsaw-wielding zombie would rush at his on-screen character and behead him in vivid color. I had to swallow hard, and try not to let my feelings show.
His mother is rarely present when I am there. I am told that she hangs out at the local bars, hoping to find a man to replace the one that fathered the angelic looking boy. Like many of the homes I visit, it’s difficult to tell exactly how many people live there– a constant traffic of siblings, friends, and neighbors come and go. Some actually spend the nights there.
As the youngest, he lacks the ability and the skill to make him interesting for the older kids, and when he asks an older male– brother, maybe, I do not know– for help with this grisly video game, he is told to go away.
This little guy really needs someone to spend time with him, someone to teach him right from wrong, good from bad. Someone to care. Right now, I am that someone. And I cannot simply tell him to quit playing his gruesome game, cannot lecture him on what it means to be a responsible and caring man. Oh, I could say those words.
But the last thing he needs is another person telling him what is wrong with him. If I have any hopes of helping him, he has to trust me, has to believe I am different, that I really care about him. Telling him his couch stinks, and his entertainment is deplorable– why should he care what I think? So somehow, I have to endure the stench, and the gory game, and win his confidence. I have to convince him that I am on his side. More than that, I have to be on his side.
And so I sit there, steeling myself against the hideous images on the screen, and begin to coach him. Coach him on how better to slay zombies, and how to accrue points, and how to escape the monster with the chainsaw. When my coaching helps him dispatch a particularly malevolent adversary, he looks at me directly for the first time that day, and flashes a smile. “That worked!” he said.
It is a small thing. Perhaps an unworthy thing, you think. And perhaps you are correct. But I see it as a small beginning, a first step, the first tender shoot of what may become trust. If I help him kill zombies in the video game, he may let me help him learn to live better. Someday, maybe, we can graduate from zombies altogether. Perhaps he will let me share great literature with him. But that is a very long way off. When that green shoot of trust has become a strong tree of friendship.
Sitting there, with the smell of urine in the air, the sadistic laughter of zombies on the screen, next to that little cherub, I get perhaps a taste of the Incarnation.
I get a taste–just a taste, mind you– of what it must have been like for Jesus to leave the purity and harmony of heaven, and be thrust among human beings. He put up with the filth– both physical and spiritual– for more than thirty years. And then we crucified him. And he still saw us as cherubs, worth dying for.
No wonder it will take eternity to understand divine love. The merest taste of it here fills us with wonder. What will it be like to spend endless time with One who loves us that much!
*some details have been altered to protect confidentiality.