When I was in fifth grade I was the smallest kid in the class. (In fact, I was the smallest kid in the class for most of my primary school career!) I was the last called when dodgeball or soccer teams were picked at recess. My “friends” would sometimes gang up on me, sit on me, and administer “The Peck” (a series of sharp jabs with a finger to the sternum . . . it was considerably painful). Somehow, I endured it all and even developed an outward sense of humor about it … but inside, it still bothered me.
Outside of my circle of friends, the abuse was less pleasant than “The Peck”. Some boys would threaten me, shove me, and knock me to the ground, and then wander off laughing with their friends. It was a pattern that had been going on for a few years. But even that was not the worst of it.
Every week I was administered a severe beating on Wednesday afternoons as I walked from my house along the railroad tracks to St. Simon’s Catholic Church for weekly catechism. It was the only way there without taking about a 5-mile detour around the tracks. And every week a kid … a BIG kid was waiting for me. Every week that kid would grab me, drag me over to a concrete wall nearby, then slam my forehead into that wall four of five times in a row. Then I would be let go, and I would walk the rest of the way to catechism … usually just a little bit late.
Maybe that is why I don’t remember much of what the nuns taught … or maybe I really was just an inattentive student, like they said. What I DO remember is that was the year I decided never to be bullied again! I finally told my father what has happening and he did what a lot of fathers would have tried to do. He gave me the tools to defend myself. As it happened, he knew heavy weight boxing champion Sonny Liston and took me to visit with him. Sonny ran a boys’ club at the time just for kids like me. After that, he introduced me to his Hawaiian friend, Al, who was a black belt in Aikido Karate.
All of that began a life-long appreciation of martial arts under grand masters of Boxing, Karate, Tai Kwon Do, and Kung Fu, and even a few years in competition. I learned to enjoy the discipline and the competition of skill, though I never had the “killer instinct” needed to dominate an opponent. I was almost always purely defensive and even “gentle” with my opponents (I didn’t want to hurt them).
What all those years under these highly skilled, yet gentle and humble teachers DID give me was a box of “tools” for self-defense and defense of others. Never again would I be a victim to a bully. And never again would I allow anyone near me to be victimized either. The additional benefit I received was the ability to walk without fear into dangerous situations (even facing mortal danger and death itself) while remaining calm, alert, and intently focused … the result of which was being able to walk OUT of those same situations intact and whole.
And THAT is what I really want to share with you today. The ability to face even death itself while remaining calm, alert, and intently focused. Death is our greatest and most powerful opponent. It seems that in the “competition of life” death always eventually is victorious. We all eventually face this opponent directly, or indirectly when he squares off against someone we love. The psalmist felt this intently when he penned,
“Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
Granted, the circumstance at the time was a lament that God had allowed persecution and death at the hands of the enemy (opponent) because Israel had sinned against God, but that is exactly the point: rebelling against God removes us from His protection and Life itself and places us in the ring against a much stronger opponent than us who will surely subdue us: DEATH … eternal death!
How does one face such an unconquerable opponent such as ETERNAL DEATH without fear? One must have the tools to overcome the more powerful opponent. In fact, there is only one tool in the box that we need, and it is not a skill that we must acquire; rather it is a trust … faith. To look death in the eye and not flinch can only be done if we step out of the ring and let the One who has defeated death once and for all step into the ring in our place.
When I went up against opponents bigger and stronger than me (in the ring and out) I trusted in the skills that had been given me by my teachers over the years. When I face death, I trust in the One who has gone nose to nose with Death and has been completely and totally victorious for me … and for all whom I love who share that same faith with me: Jesus the Christ.
“Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
(1 Corinthians 15:54-57)
FYI: The name of the kid who gave me a weekly beating; the BIG kid? Tess was her name. She was the biggest and strongest girl I had ever known. She was pretty, too. I still don’t know what she had against me. I wasn’t even in her class. Who knows, maybe she secretly liked me and didn’t know how to properly express it (we do dumb stuff for the dumbest of reasons when we don’t know any better). The beatings eventually stopped that year . . . and this year, as I remember her, I have reached into the tool box that Jesus gave me and pulled out the big ole honkin’ tool He used on me; I have forgiven her.
Rev. Nick Wirtz is pastor of Faith Lutheran Church at 2750 Mogollon Dr. in Overgaard, AZ and can be reached at (323) 717-4390. Pastor Nick resides in Overgaard with his wife Patricia. He has spent over 20 plus years as a pastor in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod with most of that time spent in bi-lingual (English-Spanish) ministry. He also serves on the board of the local Salvation Army as an advisor, as Chaplain for Post 86 American Legion Riders, and as a Board member of the Overgaard CERT. He’s also known to be seen pickin’ a little guitar around town from time to time.