PUBLISHED Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

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A Pat On The Back 0

      The nine-year-old boy sat with his shoulders slunk and eyes focused towards the ground. His small body sunk into the curving back of the chair. Moses Timlin, the boy’s after-school program teacher, could only look on in bewilderment. The boy had been acting up for the past week. A small shove here and a surly name call there had the boy’s teachers a bit concerned.
      So, Moses and another teacher took the boy aside and sat him down in that chair. The room stood like most multipurpose rooms. Chairs, desks, and a white board. But most importantly, separated from the rest of the classmates. The teachers wanted to ensure that the student felt safe to talk and that no one could hear them. This after-school program catered to families that reside in the lower economic realities of Chicago’s South Side neighborhood of Woodlawn. Moses lives a short drive from the facility and interacts with the community enough to know it is not the easiest place to be a kid. They tend to grow up really, really fast in the neighborhood.
      Moses took off the smile that usually knits his face and bent down to the boy’s level.
      “What’s wrong?” Moses gently asked the boy. “You don’t seem to be acting like yourself lately.”
      The boy momentarily shrugged off the suggestion that he had been acting differently. But a moment later, he opened up about an incident that his older cousin had told him about a few days earlier. The boy quietly depicted the unthinkable scene. His dad had been sitting in his parked car as another man quickly stomped up to the car. Without warning, his dad heard pop, pop, pop, glass shattering everywhere. He ducked down low until the shooting had stopped.
      The boy was not at the incident, so the details are spared. But he ends by quietly explaining that the bullets did not hit his dad, the intended target.

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quietly explaining that the bullets did not hit his dad, the intended target. They hit and killed his one-year-old sister.
      Now it was Moses’s shoulders that slunk, just like the boy’s. The conversation took a very sharp, heavy turn that he hadn't expected.
      As that last detail dribbled out of the nine-year-old’s mouth, nothing profound processed through Moses’s brain. He had no words to fully relate to this child. And he certainly wasn’t going to put up a front. His heart stopped, and his only reaction was to place his arm around the boy’s shoulder. Moses asked if he had someone to talk to about this stuff, but the student said, “No.” Moses gave a deep breath and asked the boy how it made him feel. The boy admitted it was devastating. Moses had to make a choice. Should he preach to this kid or just tell the kid that he loved him? He didn’t think too long about it as he gave the kid a fatherly pat on the back and told him that he loved him and will always be there to talk if he needed it.
      Moses has received similar pats on the back several times before. But the most impactful pats came as a 14- and 20-year-old. Times he has reflected on often.
      That word—reflection—frames the first 24 years of his life. He can't help but reflect. In the midst of conversation, he will often peer up, or beyond, the verbal exchange and be taken back to a moment or time that changed him. And it is in those moments that one thing becomes clear: if he hadn’t received those pats on the back, he may not be the man he is today.

***
      As a kindergartener, Moses sauntered down his school’s hallway en route to the principal’s office.

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to the principal’s office. This only happened once, but the imprint on his memory remains. His crime? He started a prayer meeting.
      “I was a really good, quiet Christian boy,” Moses recalls, giggling as he does. “Actually, when I was in kindergarten, I got suspended for a day because, at lunch, I had everyone pray. And I had everyone hold hands, bow their heads, and pray. I don’t really remember any of that, I just remember getting in trouble.”
      From an early age, Moses identified as a Christian. His family parked the car in the local church’s parking lot every Sunday, and Moses rushed in to see his Sunday school pals. Growing up, that’s all he knew. And he walked through life very content with that fact.
      But then, his teenage angst compounded by his parents divorcing resulted in a very different Moses getting out of bed everyday. A testy, ungrateful, and generally bitter kid festered inside of him.
      “I became really, really angry,” Moses remembers. “I remember just being pissed off. And then when I went to church, I was kind of a nuisance in the back. I became the bad kid in the back. And in many ways, I claimed that identity.”
      This didn’t sit well with his mom, Yvonne. She knew her oldest son of five had a gracious heart. And she definitely knew that the God she believed in, the Father she loved, would always be there for Moses. But she also knew that sometimes it took a bit of a nudge for someone to see that.
      “So many men in our church stepped up to be role models and spiritual mentors to Moses,” Yvonne explains. “Moses has been blessed with one such passionate person after the other who took an interest in him. As he grew older, there were changing people, but they all made some beautiful picture of God’s manifold wisdom to raise up Moses as a servant of God.”
      One of those people was a youth pastor by the name of Josh. Yvonne asked Josh to come over to the house one day to pick up Moses. And when the car rolled up, Yvonne asked Moses if he wanted to play with some friends. She told him that Josh was going to give him a ride. Moses leapt at the idea and ran out to the car.
      He hopped into the front seat of the car and cruised under and over Chicago’s freeway passes all the way to the North Side of the city. At one point, Moses quietly whispered to himself, “Where are we going?”
      Once they had arrived at the desired location, Moses knew exactly where they had driven to. A “church night” gathering at Josh’s house. At this point in Moses’s life, he knew the routine. Show up, say what they say, fold your hands when they fold their hands, giggle at the jokes, grab some cookies and say “bye” with a smile. This was nothing new to Moses.
      But as Josh walked with him into the house filled with other middle-schoolers, Moses could feel something a little different. He felt Josh make a genuine attempt at being his friend. Moses did not have the words at the time to describe the emotions. But simply put, he felt loved. Today, as his smile opens up and his eyes look past the immediate conversation, he can reflect and recognize just how special it was to have someone invest in him like that.
      “Probably the most profound thing I got from that time is how [Josh] was just so loving,” Moses explains.
      That didn’t exactly cause an overnight shift in who Moses was, but it opened the door. That first long haul over to the other side of Chicago turned into a very active youth group schedule. Moses often denied invites from friends at school because on Wednesdays, he had prayer meetings, Fridays were youth night at church, Saturdays he volunteered at events, and finally Sunday was church service.

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were youth night at church, Saturdays he volunteered at events, and finally Sunday was church service. By the time his sophomore year of high school came around, Moses had grown out of simply identifying as someone with Christian faith. He actually enjoyed his time amongst church friends.
      But that didn’t last.

***
      Moses, smile intact, peers out toward the group of squirly third graders. He clicks “play” on the video that's loaded on a screen at the front of the classroom. This session is simply called “Bible Time.” And Moses stands at the ready to answer any questions flung his way after the video finishes.
      The first hand goes up. Moses, still smiling, calls on the inquisitive child.
      “I teach all of the Bible lessons; three a day,” Moses says. “And I always say ‘Jesus’s friends’ instead of ‘disciples.’ For example, I will be like, ‘The Holy Spirit came, and his friends started speaking in foreign languages. So, just like Jesus healed people, what can we do?’ And the class yells back, ‘We can heal people!’”
      He can’t help but laugh when he thinks about the kids boisterously reacting.
      Moses is emphatic, descriptive, animated, and dips-and-dives between intonations to the point of full on performance art. He floats through the different stories in the Bible each day, getting each kid to jump on board some adventure. And even though he has to drag some of the kids on the journey with him, he knows it’s never a wasted effort.
      Moses knows his work with the kids is important. He knows that the Bible he is teaching them about symbolizes so much more than just the stories.

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he is teaching them about symbolizes so much more than just the stories.
      It symbolizes a crossroad. A moment in his life, when Moses had to make a turn in one direction or another. That turn, in the end, became a very long, wide, and slow turn.

***
      “I worked this summer camp after my first year at community college. It was an overnight camp for inner city youth,” Moses says. “And I remember taking my Bible and saying that things were gonna change. And I really wanted to know Jesus...and that just totally did not happen.”
      At the age of 19, Moses had signed up to be a short-term summer camp counselor. This came after one year at community college in Maryland. He packed up his bags in preparation for the camp and had one glaring goal before him: I’m gonna read this Bible. It won’t be like the last few years.
      Five years after meeting Josh and becoming involved in his church’s youth group, Moses grew out of his church clothes and started wearing the same clothes, and identity, as the majority of his high school peers. Instead of Bible study, partying started filling up his Friday nights. And Saturday nights. That made him pretty tired by Sunday. And within the short span of his junior and senior years at school, Moses had changed his focus. He was still the nice guy, the one that everyone liked, but it felt too hypocritical to party and attend church at the same time. He started to drift toward drinking at parties, using drugs with close friends, and hanging out with girls later and later into the night.
      His time in Maryland changed those habits but only when he was over there.

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there. When he flew back to Chicago, back to see his friends from high school, he fell back into a culture and lifestyle wrought with unhealthy drinking and drug use.
      “I was just getting blazed and even smoking and drinking by myself,” Moses recalls. “It was very destructive.”
      So, as that camp counselor bag got packed up and he placed his Bible inside the suitcase, he laid before himself an opportunity to wake up everyday and read that Bible.
       “I worked that summer job, and I never opened that Bible. Not even once,” Moses admits.
      Sure, he had the desire to live out a life set on loving God. And yes, he knew Jesus from his early teenage years. Yet, within the context of his everyday life, Moses felt a disconnect between himself and Jesus.
      For a few years now, some friends had been calling him “King Mo” when they went out to clubs or parties. That moniker, that title, that nickname became an identity. He worked to further that persona every time he hung out with his friends. Moses did that to the point of pure exhaustion and even depression because in the midst of living out that existence, he felt further and further away from something real.
      “I was just partying and doing whatever,” Moses recalls. “And one of my friends started calling me ‘King Mo.’ And that was just so vain. And I really thought I was something special because of how I partied. And I was just really lost in that...but it is all just so silly.”
      His ability to recognize that life as “silly” came years after the moment he found himself wanting a different King to run his life. Before Moses describes the process he went through, he pauses to reflect. He reflects on how intense his drug addiction actually was. And how he used weed to mask the feelings of emptiness and inadequacy.
      Now, several years removed from that life, Moses can see it all pretty clearly now. He sees that the the short-term pleasures were not worth trading in a long-term relationship with God.
      Like he said, it was just “silly.” A realization he may not have come to if his mom didn’t pat him on the back.
      The summer after finishing his second year of community college, Moses’s mom invited him to church. He felt bad for staying at her place all summer rent-free, so he obliged. He hopped into the back of the car and rode to church. Once there, Moses followed along with the pastor’s sermon. He nodded and agreed at parts, but an overall boredom settled in. And then the pastor did something unexpected. He stopped reading from the notes, and he looked up at the congregation.
      “The speaker just looked up and said, ‘The Kingdom of God reigns where Jesus is King,’” Moses remembers. “The biggest part that struck me was [when he said] the ‘Kingdom of God is near.’ I thought, hmmm, that’s interesting. I had always thought that there was so much distance between God and us. I thought God was watching with a lot of approval or disapproval. Something spoke to me and made me think. And all I heard was, ‘When I am the King of your heart.’”
      When Moses got home that night, he knew he needed to bridge that gap between God and him. Jesus, I want you to be the King of my heart. That idea stuck with Moses. But too many other habits also stuck. He desperately wanted to change, but partying was still his thing. King Mo still had an appetite. The momentum of life carried him into a few more months of drug use, drinking, and depression.

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and depression.
      And then that sentence flooded back. It took a few months, and the things Moses did during that time are not things he is proud of, but it came to a crashing halt. One night in his room, Moses sat dejected and down. He was sick of who he had become. He was sick of feeling empty. He was sick of how little substance there was to his life. So he whispered a prayer: “Jesus, I’m tired of this. If you want to be King, then come be King of my heart already.”
      Sure, moving forward wasn’t the easiest. It took several months after that night in his room for Moses to fully leave that lifestyle behind. But as he prepped to transfer from his community college in Maryland to the University of Chicago, Moses just kept putting one foot in front of the other, knowing his life was now in the best hands it should be in.

***
      “Moses is just so genuine,” his roommate and best friend Peter explains. “He really bridges the gap with the kids at the after-school program. And I really admire the faith he shows in doing that.”
      While he says this, Peter is actually home alone because Moses decided to walk one of the elementary school students home. It was dark out, and the student was about to head home by himself. So Moses decided to stroll alongside him.
      “He is doing such a good job of building practical trust with the students,” Peter says.
      When Moses was a young child, his mother tried to pray and read the Bible with him and his siblings every night. And while he went his own way for a period of time, all that matters is where he’s at now.

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for a period of time, all that matters is where he’s at now.
      “I think when we nurture children,” Yvonne explains, “even if they go their own way, those things come back. They are deeply planted in them.”
      Those seeds are the family, mentors, friends, and spiritual leaders who patted him on the back when he needed it most. But it was when he opened himself up to the Lord that he had the full realization of who his Father was. And that is the only thing he has to reflect on.
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