My most unfavorite relative when I was growing up was Uncle Roy. He was a short, powerfully built older man with a Kojak bald head. He was quick to smile and even quicker to admonish. He was friendly enough but there was something about him that intimidated me. His playful tussle seemed more about impressing me with his speed and vise-grip than about having fun. Uncle Roy was a Christian. At least he read his Bible a lot and had an answer for any religious issue anyone would raise. I never heard him lose an argument, though his conclusions sometimes didn't make much sense to my boyhood logic. I never saw him lose at anything, come to think of it. He was a very good checker player and would beat me easily every time we played. Once he made a careless blunder that enabled me to jump three of his men in one swoop. I was ecstatic! For the first time I had gained a strategic advantage that might allow me to win a game. Uncle Roy would not finish the game. He simply got up and left.
I remember one particular family reunion when I was eleven years old. I had been entrusted with the enviable task of churning the home-made ice cream - a role traditionally reserved for the menfolk. I accepted the responsibility with great enthusiasm. I iced and salted and churned with vigor. For some reason it took a little longer than usual for the ice cream to set up so Uncle Roy came out to inspect my work. He discovered an ice jam that was preventing the icy water from flowing as it should and took immediate corrective action. I continued to churn and soon the ice cream was thick and creamy and ready to serve up. I marched into the house to make a proud announcement to my hungry aunts and uncles. But Uncle Roy had stolen my moment of glory. He had already taken credit for my achievement. My little ego was crushed. And I was very angry. I slipped away to my room, buried my face in my pillow and cried.
When Uncle Roy died, I did not cry at his funeral. I purposed never to be like him.
I do have to admit, however, that I gained some important insights from Uncle Roy. I learned that winning an argument is not the same as winning a friend. I learned that strength can be used to intimidate people as well as build them up. Uncle Roy helped me decide that I would rather be known as someone who is kind than as someone who is strong. I determined that I would sooner lose a game and bolster a child's self-esteem than overwhelm him with my prowess. From little wounds inflicted by a self-absorbed old uncle grew a sensitivity to the way people feel when they are diminished. Perhaps I owe Uncle Roy something for that.
I would never have imagined (nor would I desire to admit) that God would use such experiences as shaping moments to prepare me for what would become my life's work. Yet, something was certainly required to temper a self-confident young urban worker who would quite naturally stride into the inner-city and impress others with his abilities. How is a capable one to learn the importance of "leadership by vacuum" - the discipline of inaction that draws the less-confident into the leadership void? Or by what means does an over-achiever come to understand the poverty of accomplishment unnoticed and unaffirmed? In retrospect, the unpleasantries of my relationship with Uncle Roy served as rather gentle groomings for the task of serving among those who have been bruised by the strong.
I don't believe I have ever thanked you for this, Uncle Roy.