Q: I have always been curious as to what the Bible means when it says that we all have to be like children in order to get into heaven. Do you know the part I’m talking about?
A: Yes, I do. This is a great question because I think that most folks who hear the verses from Matthew 18:2-4, think at first this means that we should be childlike, which is misleading. Others think it means we should be innocent like children, which is pretty hard for us worldly types. Still others read far too much into it and become confused. But for me, an incident in my last full year of teaching skiing at Copper Mtn. in the Rocky Mountains, showed me exactly what it means.
And calling to him a child, he (Jesus) put him in the midst of them, and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Some of you might wonder why part of my own personal blog’s address is monkrizzo, and it’s because since the age of 16, my nickname has been Rizzo, and I started this blog before I became Brother Damien. That name followed me from high school to each stage of my life and even to the doorstep of this monastery. As a ski instructor, it helped to have a catchy nickname the kids could remember, so it served me very well out there. I’m only telling you this because I have to use my old nickname to tell this story.
It doesn’t need to be said that when you’re a ski instructor, bitterly cold days are part of the job, and after so many years of working and playing in them, few really stand out in my memory above the others. However, the one I am about to describe, certainly does. On this fateful day I was teaching a lesson of green skiers, who, I might add, for those who don’t know what “green skiers” means, are kids who could ski the mountain’s easiest runs. These kids aren’t true beginners, like those on the bunny hills or “Magic Carpet” areas, so on really cold days, like this one, which was well below zero, this class joined all the elite skiers in having to brave the long, windy chairlifts up the frozen mountain, far away from the comfort of indoor warmth and hot chocolate. It’s a notable day in the life of any skier when they can finally get off the base of the mountain where all the learning takes place, and get to head up on the mountain where all the real skiing takes place. For many however, it can be a baptism of pain.
Ski instructors learn early on, that on really cold days, your greatest enemy is time–the time it takes to ride a wind-hammered chairlift up, and the time it takes to ski, half-frozen, all the way down to a place to warm up. Every single ski instructor who has taught for any length of time has experienced this race against the clock, which is exacerbated when things go wrong, like when a kid gets lost, or maybe wipes out and can’t put his or her skis back on without help. When either of these things happen, everyone must stop, but the elements don’t. Standing still on a mountain ski slope at over 10,000 feet, being buffeted by 30, 40, and even 50 mph winds with a wind chill you don’t really want to know, is a helpless and often painful feeling, because the wind keeps blowing, and the clock keeps ticking. Fingers and toes get colder and colder until they’re numb, then faces start to frost, and after these, patience and courage inevitably wane. And why? All because of that darned “never leave a man behind” rule. On this day, I wished that all I had to deal with were kids wiping out. I would have gladly traded that for what happened. On this day, I did the unthinkable–I left a man behind.
It was the last run. The last run is supposed to be routine for instructors, in that the goal is just to make sure nothing goes too wrong so you can get everyone to their parents on time. The rule is that this run should not be too challenging, lest there be trouble. It shouldn’t be too adventurous, lest one get lost. With a bunch of tired kids with tired legs, it’s supposed to be a fun run. The smart instructor makes it the easiest run of the day.
On this day, all I had to do was get to the bottom, hand the kids off to their folks, and my frostbitten day was over. I checked my watch. I had no real extra time–time to deal with things going wrong, which didn’t sit well with me. But still, I was sticking to the rules, keeping the kids on a green run they had skied before. It was nothing too challenging and nothing too adventurous. It turns out that was the only thing I did right.
This particular class of six kids was unusual, not just because of the intense cold, but because of the age range of my students. We mostly had older kids, above ten, but there was one exception–a little four year-old dude named Zach. Zach quickly became my buddy, since it’s Ski School policy that any student under eight be accompanied on the chairlifts by an adult. This meant that I rode every chairlift with him all day, and as a result, he quickly became my little homey.
So we’re cruising down a green run, and I’m letting the kids spread out across the hill, a freedom they have earned after having followed me in a line for much of the day. I always knew the rule, that the class is only as strong as our weakest link, so I tried to stay in the general vicinity in case someone needed help. But on this day, that didn’t happen. I still can’t entirely explain it. For some reason I ended up way out in front of everybody, which is not a good place to be, since if a kid wipes out now, I’m too far downhill to help. Maybe I was subconsciously hurrying. It’s true that I always wanted to be on time, but I don’t think that explains it. If I were to be totally honest, I would admit that part of the reason I was hustling was because I was freezing my rear end off, and skiing with some aggression gets the blood flowing. But this time I had overdone it. My class was spread all over, so I did the only thing I could do, which was stop where I was, and hope they would all get to me with no problems.
At this point, we were only halfway down the mountain, which meant we were probably ten full minutes of constant skiing from the bottom, and that’s when I realized the veteran ski instructor Rizzo, this guy with almost two full decades of experience, had just made a series of rookie mistakes. Besides skiing way too far ahead of my class–my first no-no–I had skied right past another run which branched off to the right, and stopped on the other side of it. The reason you never do this is because a kid might not be looking where he’s going and take a wrong turn down that run. Instructors learn to stop their classes right in front of a run to prevent this from happening. Today, for some reason, I didn’t do that.
My poor choice did not escape my notice. I didn’t like where I was one bit, and what made it worse, was that I had stopped right next to some snowmaking guns that were roaring at full force. Uh-oh. If I had to yell to get their attention, there is no way they could hear me. This was bad. I looked at my watch. I had just enough time to make it if nothing went wrong. Of course, everything did.
I saw Zach take that turn down the wrong run, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I yelled, but couldn’t even hear myself over the roar of those guns. Since it was too far back uphill to run, I had no choice but to just stand there and gather up everyone else. What was making things much, much, worse, was that this late afternoon time of day gets exponentially colder as soon as the sun disappears behind the peaks, which it already had. Zach was gone, and the temperature was well below zero and dropping.
Still, I didn’t panic. I quickly organized all the kids and gave chase. I knew exactly where the run Zach took came out at the bottom, so me and the rest of class took a roundabout route to head him off. Oh well. The worst that’s going to happen, is that we’re late. The bosses and parents don’t like it, especially on cold days, but it happens sometimes. I looked at my watch. We weren’t going to be late by a little, but by a lot. Yikes. All I had to do, was gather up Zach, and hop a shuttle bus back to the ski school. No sweat. Well, maybe a little sweat.
When we got to the bottom, we all looked up and scanned the mountain–no Zach. Damn. We waited and waited, looking and looking, but he never showed up. By now, the rest of my class was nearly hypothermic, so I sent them inside while I kept vigil for Zach. Luckily, each kid is issued a GPS tracking device in the morning, so really, I never worried about finding him. But I was worried about him. He was just four, and it was guaranteed that at that exact moment, he was alone, scared, and freezing. I started to get frantic. All of a sudden, I didn’t notice the cold at all.
I started thinking worst-case scenarios, but kept telling myself to stay calm. I quickly headed inside to a computer terminal so I could see where Zach was. I punched the number of his GPS into the system and bingo–there he was. On the computer, I could see the whole mountain, and right in the middle of the mountain, was Zach’s little flashing GPS. Now I panicked. He had not moved an inch since taking that wrong turn. Why not? Was he hurt? Those questions were one thing, but I knew without asking, that he was scared and alone, and had been now for close to a half hour. I tried in vain to shirk the blame by getting angry at the people who must have been skiing right past him. Didn’t they notice this little dude standing there alone, more than likely crying and shivering? It was no use blaming them. This was my fault.
I wanted to kick myself for many reasons. For one, if I had clicked out of my skis and run back up to where that run branched off, I would have found him there. Instead I assumed he’d keep skiing, which he didn’t. My gut just tied up in knots. In a panic I called ski patrol. They told me they’d go get him. After that I called my boss, who told me to get on a bus with who I have, and return to the ski school.
The ski school was like a ghost town by the time we arrived. No one was left. We were almost a full hour late, which was by far a record for me. I will never forget the looks on all the parents’ faces. It was awful. They were genuinely worried, their concern giving way to raw relief upon sight of their kids. They knew how cold it was, and I could tell by their worried looks that each one of them entertained the thought of us snowbound and lost on the mountain somewhere. Every set of parents had a nice joyful reunion with their kid, all except Zach’s folks.
Do you remember that scene in Jaws when the shark strikes at the crowded beach? The panicked throng storms ashore, and amid all the chaos, you hear one voice of a mother calling out for her son. All the kids are accounted for except one, and that look on the mother’s face, the one of pure fear, is one I saw that day when Zach’s folks saw that he was not with me.
The whole bus ride back to the ski school, I was begging for my phone to ring. I prayed for ski patrol to call and tell me they had him. But I never got that call. So what do I say to these people? I could not, mind you, bring myself to tell them the truth–that I didn’t know where Zach was, and had no idea if he was with patrol or not. The look on their faces made that impossible to do. The dad looked like he wanted to kill me, and the mom looked like she had just seen the air mattress with the big shark bite missing from it wash ashore at her feet. What could I do? I lied.
“Don’t worry folks! Zach is fine! He’s with ski patrol. We had a slight problem and he got separated but he’s safe and on his way here right now.” I said, peering upward for a lightning bolt from God that I think, honestly, at that moment, would have been welcome.
Try and remember that I’m just play-acting. On the inside, I’m like them. This isn’t just about me covering my butt. Zach was at least six years younger than everyone in the group, which meant he and I had a special bond. He was like my own kid. I was always that way with the kids I taught. I didn’t own them, but I acted like I did for a day, because I actually did own them for a day. For just a day, those kids I taught were mine, and deep down I was scared for Zach, and my heart was being torn up thinking of him scared, alone, and freezing up there on the mountain.
Each second that passed without news from patrol was like an eternity. Finally it happened. After about ten more minutes of excruciating waiting, a ski patrol snowmobile with Zach aboard rumbled up and Zach was finally reunited with his folks, who scooped him up like they weren’t sure they would ever see him again. I swear they must have been thinking the worst. Then he glanced up at me.
“YOU LEFT ME!” he yelled, half angry, half crying, fully accusing. I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach. I didn’t know what to say. I told him that I would never do that. I told him of how I watched him go the wrong way but I couldn’t do anything to stop him. I said I was sorry. I said I would never do anything like that on purpose. He didn’t look at me again. His parent’s picked him up and off they went, leaving just me and my boss there in silence, the words of his accusation still hanging in the air. Neither of us spoke, but I couldn’t contain it any longer. I started to cry. I let that boy down, my little buddy. He was only four! He was only four, and I left him out on the mountain in sub-zero temperatures. I was in a hurry to get back, and I failed him. I never should have been that far ahead of him. I never should have stopped where I did. He had every right to be mad at me, and I had every right to feel like dirt. It could have been so much worse. At least I could be grateful that it wasn’t.
The next morning I showed up at ski school, and amid the throng of kids, instructors, and parents, I see Zach’s dad. Understandably, I wanted to avoid him, since the last time I saw him, I know it required a superhuman effort on his part to keep from strangling me. I didn’t need to see that look in his eyes again. Instead, before I could turn away, he saw me, and to my bewilderment, his face lit up. He made his way through the crowd and came right up to me, smiling. He held out his hand, so I shook it.
He said, “This morning I asked Zach if he wanted to come back to ski school today, and do you know what he said? He said, ‘Only if I can have Rizzo as my teacher.'”
Wow. I was stunned. I didn’t know what to say. My mouth opened but no words came out. I felt a tremendous burden of guilt lift off my shoulders. I sighed. I smiled. I was elated. I almost started crying again, just because it was so……….what’s the word? What was Zach being? I don’t want to diminish it by saying he was one thing or the other, like he was being “forgiving,” because that suggests that he consciously made the decision to be, which I know he didn’t. He simply remembered the good and forgot the bad, not with effort or debate of conscience. That’s it. To me, I think he was being pure–as good and genuine that a person can be in an imperfect world full of imperfect people. He knew my heart, so forgave my sins, but even did that one better, by forgetting my sins. The result was an act of pure love, and there is no question in my mind that this is what Jesus was referring to in Matthew 18. At the time of this incident, I didn’t know the Bible at all, but years later, when I eventually read that passage from Matthew 18, I thought I knew what it meant better than anybody, courtesy of Zach. Look what this one innocent and simple act did. It was healing for me, healing for his father, and will be healing for some of you who read this. A single act of love. It’s amazing what it can do. Be like a child? Darn straight.