“So encourage each other and give each other strength.” 1 Thessalonians 5:11
I will never forget the day I learned just how powerful words can be and their capability to teach and train from the hand of possibly the most abrasive person I have ever met as well as one of the kindest young girls to grace my life. The first thirteen years of ministry found my husband, Dan, and I working with teenagers as youth pastors in three different churches. Before our children were born, I was his right hand girl – attending every youth event, teaching bible studies, directing the youth choir and loving every minute of ministry at his side. Teenagers flowed in and out of our house at all hours of the day and night, some coming for help and others for fun.
The youth to whom we ministered came primarily from homes that seemed to be healthy and whole. I quickly learned that outer trappings often masquerade inner ruin. A young man named Jack (names have been changed to protect the guilty) joined our youth group, having recently moved to the area because, as he put it, “My parents like to move a lot.” That should have been my first clue.
In the beginning, Jack worked hard at making friends and seemed content to go with the flow - until the day he decided that the stream of life was flowing in the wrong direction and it was up to him to redirect its course. The mask came off and the façade quickly crumbled. Standing before me was the real deal – a genuine, authentic sandpaper person of the coarsest degree. It started with little things – a friendly shove, caustic comments masquerading as sarcasm, words of darkness and destruction a fast growing and constant stream. Other teenagers began coming to Dan or to me, sharing their concern and eventually disgust at Jack’s antics. I talked to Jack. Dan talked to Jack. Together we prayed for Jack and urged the other youth to join us. Nothing seemed to change. As a last ditch effort, we drafted two of our most mature youth to take Jack under their wing and mentor him. Jack did not want to be mentored.
During one Monday night bible study, Dan asked one of those mentors to sing a solo. Jami was a redheaded freckled face girl whose sparkling blue eyes and contagious dimpled grin did not convey the constant pain she suffered as a victim of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Jami never complained, always sharing her faith in God and His goodness to her. Everyone loved her and the pure voice with which she sang but as she stood to sing, Jack began laughing, pointing and whispering to the people around him. Their lack of response fueled his fire, upping the ante for Jack to win this battle and capture center stage. With desperate questioning eyes, Jami looked at me, silently begging me to rescue her and the situation. I smiled the most encouraging smile I could muster, hoping it would be enough. It wasn’t. I looked back at Jack, delivering my famous and usually feared “shape up or die” glare – all to no avail. Dan asked, “Jack, are you ready to hear Jamie sing?” Well, that did it! Jack erupted into uproarious laughter, “Sing? Have you heard her sing? She sounds like a frog – not to mention the fact that she walks funny!” Every ounce of oxygen was sucked out of the room. Everyone froze, except Jami, who fled in tears. From the faces of those youth sitting around Jack, I could tell that well-deserved revenge was close at hand as they began loading their emotional guns and sharpening their retaliation knives. Wanting first shot at this obviously hateful and mean-spirited young man, I jumped to my feet, grabbed Jack by his ear (no, I am not kidding) and pulled him out of the room and sure death.
Reaching the foyer, I released Jack, whirled him around to face me and with clenched teeth ground out my livid question, “Do you have any idea what you just did?” The laughter vanished, pain and harsh realization spread across his face. His response was nothing short of incredible. “Yes. I embarrassed Jami and hurt her feelings.” I am not often speechless, but at that moment, words simply evaporated as I stared into the eyes of someone fully aware of the pain he had just inflicted on one of the few kids who truly accepted and was forever defending him. “I cannot believe you! Jami has always been kind to you, coming to your defense when you did not deserve to be defended, inviting you to join the group when the group did not want you anywhere around them. She has probably been the best friend you have ever had or will ever have. What is wrong with you?” Jack stood, silently accepting his rightful and, I thought, well-deserved punishment without a single word of defense.
From the corner of my eye, I saw someone approaching. I was really hoping they were bringing me some kind of rusty weapon. It was Jami, a tremulous smile breaking through the tears cascading down her face. Jack instinctively began backing away until he saw her eyes and the outstretched arms she offered him. In astonishment, I stood paralyzed, a witness to God’s supernatural presence and the restoration power of forgiveness at work before my unbelieving eyes and my angry heart. Instantly, I became the student and Jami the teacher. Both Jack and I listened quietly as God spoke through this precious young woman, the words only she could speak. “Jack, I got to thinking about why you did what you just did, and I realized something. I love you and you know that, but you don’t think you deserve that love so you tried to kill it by hurting me. It won’t work. Do you know why?” Sitting at the feet of this young, wise beyond her years master teacher, I witnessed Jack’s sandpaper world being rocked by a love he could not understand, a love that was not altered by anything he did or didn’t do, a love that only God can give. In answer to Jami’s question, Jack gave a quick headshake and whispered, “No. I don’t know why.” Jami smiled, wrapped her arms around the very one who, just moments before had viciously wounded her, and with fresh tears streaming down her face, choked out words I will never forget. “I love you with God’s love, Jack. Not mine. And His love will never die. People tried to kill it on the cross, but even that didn’t work. I just wanted to tell you that I love you – no matter what you say or do. I am your friend – period.”
Staring into her eyes, I suspect Jack experienced, maybe for the first time, the timeless and stubborn love of God; a love that could be his to give, a love that would redefine his future. With a giggle, Jami playfully grabbed Jack’s hand and, pulling him toward the place only love could take him, began happily chattering about how she needed him on the front row to encourage her while she sand. And he did!
That is not the end of the story. From that day forward, Jack was a different person. From time to time, he would fall back into old emotional habits but when he did, Jami or someone under her direction and influence would snatch him back to the new place that words of staggering kindness and God ordained wisdom had brought him. The youth who witnessed Jami’s love for this unlovable one were changed and called up higher in their obedience to God, even when it didn’t make sense and was completely undeserved. I learned the valuable lesson that hurt people hurt people. Instead of angry words, I need to make my first response one of unexplainable love and unmerited understanding.
Taken from Mary Southerland’s book, Sandpaper People.
For more information, visit Mary’s website: