When I was twelve years old, Cambridge Middle School had a ruler called Johnny. In my whimsical imagination, Johnny stood about 6 feet tall at the age of 10, and weighed over 100 kgs. He was 13. His face was steel. It didn’t change emotion.
Johnny didn’t share his emotions. He didn’t have conversations. He was a bundle of fat-and-muscle, with a hint of untapped rage hiding behind the stone-facade. He wasn’t the cool kid. He was the kid you didn’t want against you.
Years later, Johnny threw chairs at a teacher and got expelled. He was usually placid, but you sensed there was always the potential that something could explode.
And somehow, I’d chosen to play touch rugby at lunch time, a gangly white boy who was 90% arms and legs – with Johnny and his posse.
I was never very good at sports, and was worse at touch. I could catch, run and pass – but I didn’t understand the strategy and the decision making that made the game work. I still don’t.
So I boldly camped out on the wing, attempted to guard my player and generally prayed that the action wouldn’t come my way. (I don’t know why I played at lunch time – this was voluntary.)
But I remember Johnny – my team-mate – making an explosive break through the defence that belied his weight. He ran, unmarked and with no-one to beat – making a beeline for the try-line.
The opposition had given up. I’d been tailing in support – and for some reason, decided to keep running alongside Johnny. We had 30 meters to go, and no defence. This try was for Johnny to take.
20 meters. 10 meters. 5.
As he approached the final steps – and all he needed to do was ground the ball – Johnny slowed and turned. He looked at me.
He saw a skinny, bespectacled boy sprinting alongside him. A guy who didn’t belong on the touch-field. Someone whose name he didn’t know.
And in a moment of pure grace – and pity – he stopped, and passed the ball to me. He gave me the glory. He allowed me my moment – I could catch the ball, and score a try. This was not a regular occurrence for me.
I knocked the ball on. It bounced out of my hands. The try – whiffed. The opposition would get the ball.
I kept running. I kid you not. I didn’t slow down – but kept running, as far away from the field as I could. I wanted to get away. And the cat-calls and mockery that came from behind me made me run faster.
An opportunity given to me. And I had failed. And they let me know it.
Hop in your DeLorean. Fast forward to 12 years later. I was 24 years old, and was with my Youth Community at Papamoa Beach. A bunch of 16-18 year olds were playing touch rugby on the sand.
These guys and girls were athletic. They could pass a ball further than I could see. Their game was like watching a fast-moving chess match – attacks, feints, covers and motion.
Slowly, a 13 year old kid from our Youth Community began to sidle to the sidelines. This boy had an anxiety disorder, and was incredibly quiet. He would come to our events, sit and watch, and go home at the end. When I tried to say “Hello” to him, he would walk away.
He looked like a shorter version of 12 year old me. Gangly and awkward.
The athletes turned to him. I watched, wanting to see what would happen next.
“Come and play with us, bro!” “Join in!”
He looked at his feet. He shrugged. But he made his way to the wing, standing on the very edge of the game.
The chess match continued, with one lonely pawn dragging his heels on the sideline. I could tell he was yearning to be part of the action, yet reluctant to make a mistake.
Suddenly, his team made a break. The ball carrier glanced up, and saw the 13 year old, unguarded on the edge. He fired a perfect pass, right in front of him.
The ball spiralled with Platonic perfection. The 13 year old watched it, arcing towards his run.
It slapped against his hands, and bounced in front. He’d knocked it on. His first touch – his moment where he’d risked it all – and he had failed.
I held my breath. Would he keep running? What would happen?
The athlete – a representative for Waikato, someone who had played rugby his entire life – yelled.
“No worries bro! My bad.”
I’ll never forget that. My bad. He had delivered perfection, and yet he gladly claimed fault – so that this 13 year old might keep playing.
An hour later, he was still there. Running in confused circles, never quite in-sync with the rest – and yet he was smiling.
One game of touch was motivated by fear. One was motivated by grace.
Life can be running, motivated by fear – of failure, of others, of imaginary futures that never eventuate.
Or life can be running, called by grace – attempting, trying and stumbling towards the imaginary futures we are invited to participate in.
I default to fear. But I aspire to grace.