I learned quickly that “intense” was not a big enough word to properly describe Carson. Nope, I discovered Carson’s intensity early and uncomfortably during the second game we played at our Southern California boys camp. Apparently the only tools you need to squeeze the character of a boy are a few well aimed balls and the promise of dodgeball glory that rests like a crown upon the head of the last boy standing.
Carson is one of those 12 year old guys that is so naturally athletic that it’s nauseating. His blond frame is not big, but he’s all muscle, and every one of those muscles seems to know exactly what it should be doing and where it should be at just the right time. Throwing ... check. Catching ... Check. Contorting one’s body like a character in the “Matrix” who has fallen right from the pages of fiction and into our dodgeball court ... Check.
The problem with Carson was not his ability to control his body ... it was his unwillingness to control his temper.
Intensity is Good. Unbridled anger erupting from his mouth and scorching the other members of civil society around him was unacceptable. I also know that if left to take root this kind of anger produces husbands and fathers who disciple their families straight into a living hell by filling their homes and the hearts of those trapped within its walls with hopeless fear. The bruised souls and faces of women and children are just the fruit of the violence practiced when men were boys playing games. Games are training for life. Games reveal and they teach. And I was not about to allow this weed to begin growing in my presence without at least some attempt to weed it out while it was still small ... ish.
I called him out and warned him that he needed to immediately bring his anger under control or he’d end the game as a spectator rather than a victor. Either he didn’t believe me, or he forgot, or he just couldn’t help himself, but I only had time to take a few breaths and he’d already exploded in anger all over the court again.
His look of shock and hot indignation was almost laughable when it finally registered that I was serious that he’d be sitting the rest of that game. He threw the balls he held in his hands down in undisguised disgust. As he walked over to me I think it was only my relative size advantage that spared me from an untimely death. He was the kind of angry that can only be given birth by surging testosterone stoked into fury by a misplaced sense that a grievous injustice was being perpetrated upon his 12 year old person.
My heart sank. I knew he’d be upset but it was clear that more was at stake. I had just made an enemy. Any possibility of building a relationship with him was gone. His heart was now closed to my voice. I didn’t show it but I was really sad. I stood on the hillside. He sat at my feet about 6 feet away, breathing deeply, seething, and avoiding any eye contact. At that point I stopped paying attention to the game and I began to pray.
The game passed and about seven minutes were left before dinner line-up. I wanted to show mercy. But was that the right thing to do? I argued the case back and forth as game time ticked away. Eventually I made my decision. I called Carson over, told him that he was on the edge of becoming a young man, and that Christian men must learn to control their emotions and anger. I told him that the kind of anger that he had exhibited would eventually grow, as he grew, into the kind of anger that fills a house with yelling and anger and that I didn’t want him to become that kind of a father. I finished by giving him a choice. The ability to play out the rest of the game depended entirely on if he was willing to confess his sin of anger without making excuses. With only a moment of deliberation he acknowledged he’d sinned and I let him finish the game.
I had no clue if this confession was genuine repentance or not. In my faithlessness I figured it probably wasn’t and I was prepared for the distance this conflict was sure to wedge between us.
The following day I looked to my right as the passenger door of my van opened to see who my co-pilot was going to be. It was Carson hopping into the seat. If he hated me this was certainly not a logical place to put himself ... 18 inches away from his mortal enemy ... and stuck there for the length of the car ride. I immediately checked for weapons or some other tool of retribution, but the only thing he had on him was a genuine smile. I turned the key and with my eyebrows raised in satisfied surprise put the van in drive.
It was like we’d been friends for years. Carson began to tell me about his family, and the brokenness that characterized it. He talked about his desire to be a godly man and father. Among other things I encouraged him to reject our culture’s careless and harmful approach to relationships, and he received it with genuine earnestness. Throughout the week I kept getting encouraging glimpses that something had snapped in the right direction for Carson. As we lined up for dinner, for instance, one of our junior counselors told me how that evening during game time Carson consistently encouraged the other boys and even challenged the ones who were struggling with anger or arguing that they needed to behave more like godly men.
This experience with Carson reminded me once again how important creating these teachable moments are, the importance of challenging our young men with the obedience to which God calls each of us, and the powerful context that camp can provide for life changing moments.