I was a really insecure elementary-aged kid, and things didn’t get any better when I graduated into Middle School. Even the name “Middle School” indicates that you’re not where you used to be, but you’re not where you’re supposed to end up either. You’re in the middle. What a stupid name.
Just before entering the 7th grade, I became the unlucky recipient of both glasses and braces. The glasses were the coke bottle type lenses, surrounded by large black frames. And the braces (commonly called “railroad tracks” by my friends who made fun of me) were bands that were cemented around every tooth, top and bottom. They were all connected by a wire that my orthodontist would “tighten” on a monthly basis.
I was a deeply sensitive kid who could play sports well enough to mask my sensitive nature, but I also had an artistic temperament. And now, I had both glasses and braces at the same time.
It was a recipe for disaster.
Every school has a bully or two. But after a good fight, there’s always only one left standing. At Wawona Middle School in Fresno, California, the bully was Matt. Matt would end up serving a life sentence in a California penitentiary for armed robbery and murder. None of us were surprised when we heard that story on the local news station.
Matt and I had this weird relationship in Middle School. He hated me, and really for no reason. He wasn’t that bad of a kid, and he was actually halfway funny. But he was twice as big as the rest of us, and he hated me for some unknown reason. And as these teenage horror stories go, Matt was in 5 of my 6 classes that year. He’d sit near me in all five classes, just to throw things at me and flick my ears with his fingers and fart silently while blaming the impressive odor on me.
My entire seventh grade year was spent dealing with Matt. Actually, my entire seventh grade year was spent NOT dealing with Matt. But that was about to change, and my dad would play a huge role in it all.
My father was raised in Brockton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. His mother was an authoritarian woman from Italy, and his father was a passive alcoholic from Sweden, who was also a womanizer. So as a teenager, my dad was searching for a place to belong. He discovered a group of people just like him, and they invited him to be a part of their gang. One of the gang members was a kid named Rocky. It shouldn’t surprise you that a kid from Brockton was named Rocky. Half of the kids in Brockton were named Rocky. But this kid’s last name was Marciano.
The same Rocky Marciano who would grow up to become the only heavyweight champion of the boxing world to never lose a fight. The same kid who is ranked by historians as one of the greatest boxers of all time. If you can believe it, Rocky won 87.5% of his fights by knockout, and he only weighed 190 lbs. He would spend the first few rounds hitting his opponents in their upper arms and shoulders. By the late middle rounds, they could no longer lift their arms to protect the right cross that would eventually put them on the mat.
So you might imagine that my father became a really good gang member, and an even better fighter. Rocky Marciano was training him to fight, after all.
So after my seventh grade year ended, my dad and I began to spar, just for fun. He had told me stories of his upbringing with Rocky and the gang wars and the fights. He had told me about serving in the Navy, and about looking for fights in the European pubs during World War II. It’s hard to remember your motives in Middle School, but I think I just wanted him to teach me how to fight, mostly because I was growing tired of being picked on. And ultimately, I really wanted to knock Matt on his butt.
So dad taught me the easiest way to do that. He called it, “Jab. Jab. Cross”. In these three simple movements, he taught me to stand with my left foot forward, leading with two sharp and fast left-handed jabs to an opponents nose. The goal of these two jabs wasn’t to overpower the person, but to confuse and disorient him. And the reason I was to aim at the nose, my father told me, was to make his eyes water so he couldn’t see what would come next.
That’s what would come next. That’s when he taught me to take every ounce of power I had, channel it all into my entire right side and, leading with my hips, come across my body with my right hand, landing the blow onto my opponent’s jaw with all the force I had.
Jab. Jab. Cross.
My eighth grade year began at Wawona Middle School. And, as I fully expected, Matt began picking on me the first day. But this time, I didn’t stay quiet. This time, I told him to knock it off, or some other scared-to-death phrase that I can’t remember because I was peeing in my 501’s at the same time. He shoved me in my chest with both hands, pushing me back a couple of feet, all the while taunting me, “What are you gonna do about it?” And then he started calling me names that I had never heard in my conservative Baptist upbringing.
After a few more seconds of taunting me, these words came out of my mouth, and I’ve never been more scared in my life to say them.
“After school. You know the place.”
The place was just around the corner from the school where no teachers or administrators could see, and where most fights happened. And I was calling him out.
My father had prepared me for this moment. He had told me stories about how someone always needs to stand up to the bully, and about how Jesus never wants us to initiate fighting, but about how some things are worth defending. But he had also prepared me for exactly what would happen in my fight with Matt.
He told me that Matt was a fighter, not a boxer. He told me that Matt would arrive at the fight location late, just to make an impressive entrance. He told me that Matt would lunge at me with the first punch, because that’s what fighters do. And he told me to simply step to my left when that happened, avoiding Matt’s wild first punch, and positioning me for everything I had learned about boxing during that prior summer.
I miss my dad like crazy, every day since he passed in 2010, and this is much of the reason why. He was the hero of all heroes for me. He knew so much about life and living and what to do and when to do it. And he tried his broken best to teach it all to me. And he loved me fiercely, and he believed that I could do anything in this life, and he told me that all the time. And if I could be just half the man he was, I will have lived an amazing life.
The school bell rang, and I walked immediately to the location of the impending fight. I waited there as a small crowd began to gather. Everyone knew Matt, and very few people knew me. I think they wanted to see some unknown guy get his bell rung. I waited for what seemed like five hours, even though it was only five minutes. My dad was right. Matt was making a grand appearance, and was fashionably tardy.
He approached me, taunted me with more of the same names he had used earlier in the day, then said, “Let’s do this.” And before I could even think about verbally responding, he lunged at me with a wild right cross, just like my dad said he would do. I stepped to the left as he threw it, feeling the wind of his fist pass by the right side of my face.
And then something just rose up inside of me. It was a mixture of confidence and calm and strength and a feeling of giving a voice to every other kid like me who was too scared to stand up to this punk.
Matt straightened up, and before I knew it…
Jab. Jab. Cross.
It happened in a millisecond, and I don’t remember a thing. But when I opened my eyes after the cross, Matt was on the ground. Blood was beginning to stream from his nose. Some stoner from the crowd yelled, “You broke his nose!” Matt tried to get to his feet to continue the fight, but he couldn’t. He wasn’t getting up, and I had once again urinated in my 501’s.
I grabbed my backpack, slung it over my shoulder, jumped on my motocross bike, and rode off into the sunset. I may have said a few words to him, but I don’t remember.
When I got home, my father was watering the front lawn, sitting on the porch in his favorite fold-up camping chair, as he watched the drops of water sink into the Bermuda grass. He asked me how my day went, and I told him the whole story.
He grinned from ear to ear as I shared it with him, asking me questions of clarification all along the way. Toward the end of my storytelling, my dad asked, “Were you scared?”
And I said, “Yeah. Like never before.”
And he said, “Good”.
And then he said these words – words that have remained with me for the rest of my life, and have shaped every other Braveheart moment I’ve been called into. He said.
IN LIFE’S BIGGEST AND SMALLEST MOMENTS, YOU PROBABLY CAN’T GET RID OF THE FEAR COMPLETELY. BUT YOU CAN PUT IT IN THE TRUNK, AND TAKE IT FOR THE RIDE.
For me, that’s the closest I can get to having no fear at all, while at the same time living in a fallen world – a world where redemption has happened in Christ, and where all creation still groans for it.
Every one of us is called into something far bigger than ourselves, and God is the One doing the calling. But sometimes we let our fears get the best of us. We make excuses about not being spiritual enough, or prepared enough, or skilled enough, or old enough, or young enough, or whatever enough. Yet all the while, the imprint of God is on our lives – the very same imprint that craves visibility to the world. And sometimes that Invisible is made visible in the things we don’t do. But more than often, the Invisible God is made most visible when we have just enough courage to treat our fears like fences, not like walls. And unfortunately, for many of us the fear is just too great or too high or too overwhelming, so we make the scared choice to remain where we’re at, offering the world what might seem like a legitimate and carefully worded set of excuses, yet all the while masking our trembling hearts by getting involved in safer activities and groups and initiatives.
But does it sound to you like God’s imprint in our world should cower to the bullies?
I know artists and leaders and administrators and technical folks and pastors and entrepreneurs and moms – people with so much to offer to the world, yet who are paralyzed to offer the full extent of their hearts to the universe around them. And it’s all because of fear. And the guy writing these words is just as guilty of this as anyone else, as everyone else. If you only knew.
In a tender father and son moment, David looks deeply into the eyes of his son Solomon and says this (1 Chronicles 28:20):
Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid, for the LORD God, my God, is with you.
The absolute antidote to fear is the presence of Christ. So on a day to day basis, may we learn together to put fear in the trunk, to allow God His rightful place of lordship in the driver’s seat, and to travel this insane journey where we’re being caught up in a Story that’s way too big for any of us to write without the Author and Perfecter of our faith crafting the script.
And may we learn to live our lives one size larger than our fears.