Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Man Behind the Counter

The man behind the counter was having a bad day. In fact, he was ready to quit. That very minute. I was in a convenience-type store, just picking up a few items, and I was behind a younger woman in the line.  The woman had her four frozen pizzas and a bottle of wine. I am guessing the pizzas were for her kids and the bottle of wine for was after her kids were in bed.  She was engaged in quite a long conversation on her cellular telephone.  She talked on her phone, gesturing with one hand while holding the phone with the other, all while the man behind the counter was ringing her up (are you old enough to remember why this check-out routine is called “ringing up”?).  After he had bagged her goods the woman swiped her debit card, picked up “dinner” and walked away, chatting away without missing a word in the conversation.

Now it  was my turn, except that the man behind the counter was visibly angry and he was not taking up my goods. He said, “How can people be so rude? She didn’t even acknowledge that I was alive. Who does she think she is? I am ready to quit, right now. I mean it. I don’t have to put up with people like that.”  Well, my wife, Jill, was waiting in the car, and I didn't want to have to find another store, so I tried to calm him down. “Well, maybe she had an emergency call.” “No,” he said, “ I could hear the whole conversation, just a lot of foolish talk.” And then came a bit of “street psychology” which caught my ear. The man behind the counter said, “They think they can ignore me because I am their inferior. They prove they are superior to me by not even looking at me. But, I know the truth; they are the inferior ones who need to act like they are so important on their phones that they can just ignore people like me.”  I quickly processed this analysis, and in some weird way it made sense. Plus, I wanted to get checked out, so I quickly agreed with him.  I joined him in bemoaning the fact that in our effort to be more and more “connected” we have in fact become a society of people that fail to connect at the most basic level. We don’t even see the man behind the counter anymore.

Before Jesus could heal the blind man he had to first see him. (John 9:1)  To be a true servant of our neighbors we first need to see them.  Some of used to sing,  “We’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride. They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” (Peter Scholtes © 1966)  Sadly, that tune went out of style, but it is more relevant than ever.  Jesus saw each person as someone he loved, because he did love everyone. Do we?  Well, a good way to start showing it is by truly seeing the man behind the counter.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

No 'Boss Key' Required

Have you ever used a “boss key?”  This little invention of the human mind is yet another testament to the natural traits of the human species: while we say ‘honesty is the best policy’, we live otherwise.  Here’s the scenario.  You are sitting at your desk “working” during the nationally televised men’s national basketball championship.  From your computer you can now watch all of the basketball games, and on the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament, that is an all-day opportunity.  From 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (CT) you can watch non-stop hoops.  The only problem, of course, is that someone is paying you money to do productive work during those same hours.  Well, problem solved!  Some genius somewhere invented the “boss key”, which is a box on your computer screen which you can click on when “the boss” is approaching. Clicking on the boss key instantly changes the video on your computer screen to a new page which makes it look like you are working. Brilliant! Dishonest, but brilliant.

Do you go through life wishing that life came with a boss key? I mean, what if you could hide from your spouse or children all of the behavior you were too ashamed to let them know you were engaged in?  Do you think your life would be happier? Or would it be better to make a decision: “if I am going to engage in this particular behavior, then I am going to do so openly. And if I am too ashamed of the behavior to do so without my spouse or kids knowing it, then I won’t do it.”  Whether it’s binge shopping or eating; or computer usage or television viewing, wouldn’t you feel better about yourself if you didn’t feel the need to “click the boss key” if someone saw you doing it?

I wonder if we think about God like a boss we need to hide from.  Do we try to hide our true feelings and actions from God, thinking we can click on some spiritual boss key whenever we don’t want God to know what we are all about?  Friends, it doesn’t work. God knows. “ I look behind me and you’re there, then up ahead and you’re there, too—your reassuring presence, coming and going. This is too much, too wonderful I can’t take it all in!” (Psalm 139, The Message)  God is not some big “boss” walking behind you waiting to catch you at something.  But neither is God blind to how we live.

Yet, fully knowing who you really are, God still loves you with an overwhelming love.  With God, no boss key is required.  Now, don’t live like you need one.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

I Need That!

You know what temptation is, right? Almost all of our temptations can be summarized in one simple phrase: “I need that.”  Something in our brain persuade us, first with a whisper, and then with a big, bold, capital letters shout: “I NEED THAT! NOW!”  And the world of social media has figured out how to tempt us, or at least me, in very clever, subtle and not so subtle ways.

The new number one source of temptation will soon be interest ads on computer pages.  Interest ads are the little windows which pop up on your computer and tell you what you need based on your “interests”.  Interest ads get to you because advertisers pay people who have pages you read to allow the ads to be placed there. So, for example, if you are car shopping on line you will find all sorts of interest ads pop up telling you which car dealers you “need” to visit for the best deals.  If you are looking up information about automobile accidents you will find ads from lawyers who will get you all the money you “need” to make things right.

That’s all really fair game. That is just a modern advertising strategy.  The more devious ones are those which tempt us with things we didn’t even know we needed. So, for example, I find out with great regularity the “problems” the interest ad writers assume I have as an older white male: failing and falling features and drives.  And the advertisers promise they can give me a new lease on life with one little click on the alluring ad.  As it turns out, most of my “problems” can be solved with a pill.  For some reason, I don’t believe them.  Maybe it’s because it always seems that today’s problem-solving pill becomes tomorrow’s class-action lawsuit.  I spent a lot of time following all sorts of links to turn off interest ads, but with only marginal success.  So now it has become a game in my mind: I am not going to look at the ads. I am going to just say no.

 It is no sin, they say, to be tempted.  The sin is in believing that the tempting offers of an easy path to possessions, power and prestige will give you the life you always dreamed of, and all of that is just one little click away.  Temptations are no different now than they were at the beginning of time.  The Tempter finds a weak spot in our life and says, “I can fix that problem. See, the ‘apple’ looks so good, and it’s good for you! Really.” And we finally persuade ourselves, “How bad can it be? I need that!” Oops.   

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Mr. Martin's Cross

People who have met him say he is an imposing figure, a big man’s big man. Tall and wide with eyes that can stare a hole through you.  Yes, Frank Martin is all of that, and he also knows his stuff. He knows it so well that, taking the package as a whole, people pay a great deal of money to have him on their team.  Just think, $12.3 million dollars for six years of work. Just this year he is making $1.9 million, and his employer paid his former employer $1 million just for the opportunity to hire him away.

And what is it that Mr. Martin does? Cure diseases? Manage hundreds of jobs? Create lasting art?  Mr. Martin is a basketball coach for the University of South Carolina; the leader of the Gamecocks men’s team.  Mr. Martin was hired partly because he is a good coach, but mostly, I think, because he gets angry. He gets angry a lot.  His stare is worth the price of admission and it helps in filling the stands, 18,000 seats at a time.  But, this year, Mr. Martin has become a caricature of himself.  He engages in behavior which, in any other employment setting would get you fired faster than you can say “where’s the door?”  Mr. Martin is an angry man, and that has become his cross to bear.  He recently was caught on camera berating a freshman player.  Can you imagine what would happen if a professor or administrator cussed out a 19 year-old boy in front of his classmates?  Well, the Athletic Director for South Carolina, Ray Turner, must have felt it was time to send a message to his very expensive coach. So he suspended him.  For one game. One game. Wow, that sure is sending a message. I wonder if it’s the message Mr. Turner intended to send.

Mr. Martin claims he doesn’t want to be The Angry Man. When he was hired he said, “What you see in six seconds on ESPN is nothing like I am.” Wishful thinking, Frank.  Maybe Mr. Martin can use his night off to read about one of the greatest coaches ever, John Wooden.  Coach Wooden rarely yelled at his players because it was, “artificial stimulation, which doesn’t last very long.”  But Coach Wooden was subject to passionate outbursts. He controlled them by carrying a little cross in his pocket, clutching it during every game. It wasn’t a magic device or a good luck charm. It was a simple reminder to the Coach that there is something more important than basketball.  Maybe if Mr. Martin tried carrying a little cross he could get rid of his big cross.

How about for you?  Do you have a cross to bear? Anger, gossip, lust, vanity, pride?  Could you use the Coach’s cross as a way to remind you, when confronted with temptation, that there is a another way to deal with life than being weighed down by the cross you created?

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Cloud Vision

Clouds.  Flying through clouds. Dark clouds. The tube carrying 100 or so people shakes, just a little, but enough to get your attention.

Do you know that moment? That moment when the chatterbox three rows back suddenly becomes quiet. The moment when the businesswomen intent on completing her presentation shuts down the computer and looks at her seatmate. That moment when a husband and wife, sitting aisle and window, reach across the empty center seat to hold hands.

When you are flying through life’s clouds it’s like that, isn’t it? My day started talking with a friend whose brother is about to go into six hour surgery, the outcome of which will bring news, and perhaps a chance at recovery. Perhaps not.  There is little to say to my friend and her family. Little that is not trite or some time-worn slogan that clergy are supposed to say. And yet, in that moment, in the dark clouds, it’s not so much what you say that matters, it’s more how you say it. It’s more that you are physically or emotionally holding someone’s hand to show her that you are there.  Everyone pays attention when the airplane is shaking through the darkness. Everyone needs a hand held, even the tough guy in aisle 12 who looks like he has survived much worse.  He could use a smile too.  Yes, in the dark clouds, people are listening.

What they want to hear; what they need to hear, is that God lives in the clouds.  And he does.  God is the Light that keeps the Darkness from becoming overwhelming.

You know, in your mind more than in your heart, that the airplane is going to get through the dark clouds. And then, wheels down, Chatty Cathy and Betty Businesswoman can get back to what they do.  In the light. On the ground. Out of the clouds.

The most critical thing to have when you are flying through dark clouds is the vision that comes not from seeing but from believing.  That’s faith, I suppose. Cloud vision.