(Mother Teresa of Calcutta~Albanian missionary and Nobel Peace Prize winner~1910-1997)
I ain’t never seen before
Don’t know what it is
I don’t wanna see no more.
|Painting by Margaret Kirkpatrick|
There it was again. The noise of the vacuum cleaner in the sanctuary roared in my ears, but I was sure that I heard hammering. I stuck my head in the door and shouted at the Lovely Lady, beckoning her, when I finally got her attention, to turn off the motor on the noisy thing. She did, looking quizzically at me. “Did you hear something banging?” I asked. “No…can’t hear a thing over this,” she made a motion with her foot to get back to her work, but I held up my hand. There it was again, coming from the side door of the church sanctuary, where we were fulfilling our weekly task as the church custodians. Someone was banging on the wooden door. No one ever used that door. I wondered who it could be?
By the time I got to the door, the man was halfway down the steps, but I opened it anyway and asked if I could help him. He made his way unsteadily back up the stairs and stood there, swaying back and forth. He was quite obviously inebriated, but he asked what he had come to ask. “Can you give me some money? I need to get home.” It is a question that gets asked at the church doors across this nation a thousand times a day. I answered him honestly. “I don’t have any money, sir. I’m sorry.” I didn’t add the thing I really wanted to say. “…and I wouldn’t give you any if I did.” Typically, cash given to a drunken person only aids in making them more drunk. I’m not sure this man could have managed much more in that direction, though. He was definitely well past the point of caring.
He muttered something about no one wanting to help him and staggered off the church steps toward the highway. I stood there a moment, eyeing the man as he wove first one direction and then the other. I really had nothing in my pockets. The Lovely Lady and I didn’t just clean the church every week because we had servants’ hearts. We needed the money. With two children and a business which was barely scraping by, there just was never any extra cash after purchasing groceries and paying the bills. I was standing there in self pity, considering my plight, when I came to my senses about what the old man was doing. The highway he was headed for was a really busy one, the second most active port of entry into the state of Arkansas. Semi-trucks and cars streamed past, one after the other, every once in awhile one of them honking its horn at the fellow. He was struggling to walk on the shoulder, but was failing miserably, instead wandering into and out of the lane of oncoming traffic. I ran after him and pulled him toward the ditch.
“Can I take you somewhere?” He named a town miles away, but I didn’t have that much gas and told him so. He thought for awhile and then he had it! “Just take me down to the railroad tracks then,” the man said thickly. “I’ll hop a freight train and be home real quick.” I laughed out loud, but he was dead serious. What could I do? I couldn’t leave him to get killed on the highway. I turned him around and we walked back to where my old pickup truck was parked. With much effort, he pulled himself up into the cab and we started across town, in the general direction of the railroad tracks. As I drove, I thought about what I was doing. If the highway was dangerous, the railroad tracks were suicidal. I made a turn or two toward the north, hoping that he wouldn’t notice. He didn’t, falling over against me as I turned the corners. After a mile or two, I pulled to a stop and told him, “Here we are.” We were in front of the police station. It was the only thing I could think of. They would give him a place to sleep off the liquor and then, if he was still determined to ride the freight, he could find his way himself and wasn’t nearly as likely to kill or maim himself.
The man looked at the building and then at me. “Why you @#%&@! I’ll kill you for this!” I think it’s the only time anyone has ever threatened to kill me and it took me a little by surprise. I explained to him that I just couldn’t let him hurt himself and that at least he’d have a place to sleep for the night. He thought about that for a minute, letting his whiskey-pickled brain work its way around the thought. “Okay. Let’s get it over with.” It took a few minutes to explain to the police officer at the desk what was going on. They weren’t any happier with me bringing him to them than the man was himself, but they finally said that they would figure something out and I left. I never saw him again.
I look back on the occurrence, twenty-five years ago, and I still wonder. What did I accomplish? Why was he so angry with me? Why were the police unhappy with me?
I had done the right thing, hadn’t I? My only intent was to protect the man’s life. Wasn’t that what the police were supposed to do, also? “To Serve and Protect” That’s their motto. They just didn’t seem so keen on helping this old guy. I’m not sure I’ll ever figure out their response, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve finally got a little insight into the old man’s thought process.
The longer I ponder on the event, the more clear it becomes. He was happy with the way things were going. Unaware of his danger on the roadside, he would have gone his way without a care until that last sudden impact. He didn’t know, and he didn’t care. When I pointed out his jeopardy, he chose a different path, this one just as fraught with danger as the last one. Again, he would have been perfectly content for me to drop him off at the tracks, awaiting a chance to jump for the passing freight. Perhaps he would have made the leap. Then again, perhaps he would have fallen short and had the consequences of that foolish action to deal with. He was completely willing to put himself in danger, and may even have been unaware of the peril he was in, but either way, he certainly didn’t want me to save him. His angry reaction took away all doubt I might have had of that.
I continue to ponder on the strange event, realizing that there is more to learn. As much as I want to deny it, the old drunk is a picture of you and me. Oh, we may not be found in that inebriated condition, but we certainly are just as stubborn, and frequently just as bewildered. We think we know what we are doing, our befuddled minds assuring us that we have made good choices, and all the while, we are heading for a precipice, about to jump off.
You know, I seem to have a knack for explaining the obvious. I think this may be where I get off tonight. You will, no doubt, be able to work out the details of this enigma yourself. I will leave you with just one last thought. There is a Savior, who will not force you as this clumsy young man did to the old fellow many years ago. The current danger is clear and it is present. But, you get to choose.
I’m hoping you won’t choose the train tracks.
“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
(C.S. Lewis~Irish novelist and Christian apologist~1898-1963)
“How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me.”
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.
“Eso si que es!” This evening, the ages-old punch line to a joke came to my mind. It was almost fifty years ago that my father told me the joke, but I couldn’t help but think about the ancient gag tonight as I realized that, once again, communication has broken down. The result is frustration and accusation, with a few recriminations tossed in for good measure.
Okay, first the joke. The old Hispanic fellow walked into the Woolworth store (it was fifty years ago, remember?), where no one spoke Spanish, and he started looking for something. The salesman tried to help, asking again and again what it was that the man needed. Finally, as he wandered down near the shoe department, the old guy exclaimed, “Eso si que es!” (approximate translation: “That’s it!”) while pointing to the rack upon which the socks were displayed. The salesman retorted, disgustedly, “Well, why didn’t you spell it in the first place?” I’ll leave you to work that one out (hint: you may have to pronounce the Spanish words aloud) and move on to the present reality.
The customer received her order today. Her email to us tonight communicates her unhappiness very distinctly. “You people ought to be ashamed! I paid good money for nothing! I will never order from you people again!” I won’t go into the details of the order, because they don’t matter. What does matter is that this lady thought she was ordering something which she did not receive. Wondering if we were actually at fault, I went back and read the description of the product online. It describes the item very clearly…to me. What happened here?
When we set up our online catalog, we discussed and argued; we wrote and rewrote. We wanted to be certain that the articles were described precisely and simply. Then we went back and rewrote some more. The catalog went live and weeks passed. We kept track of the comments and questions. Then we sat down again and discussed and argued; we wrote and rewrote some more. We have done our best to make clear what we are selling. But, every once in awhile, a customer will order something and then ask to return it because it wasn’t what they thought they were ordering. Whose fault is this? Who is not communicating?
Well, like the fellow in the tired old joke, sometimes we just don’t speak the same language as those with whom we are attempting to exchange information. The written word can be a powerful thing, but it can also be an unwieldy tool; inflexible and limited by both its authors and its readers. When we find a person with whom we don’t share a common vocabulary–and it’s not always a different language, but sometimes just a different environment and culture–we have to work to find a more universal understanding. We will be doing that in the next day or two with our customer. Because we don’t actually sell the product she thought she was ordering, we will probably not be doing business with her again. That doesn’t change our responsibility to be civil and work out an equitable conclusion to our business transaction. We will attempt to communicate in honesty and with compassion. Time will tell if our efforts are successful.
Have you ever been on either side of this scenario? Neither position is a pleasant place to be, is it? Each party thinks he or she is right. Depending on the temperament and reaction of both people, the situation can become tense. Accusations can fly. Tempers can be temporarily mislaid. I know. I’ve reacted wrongly more times than it is comfortable to admit. Again and again though, the key to resolution is more and better communication. The obvious conclusion of the matter is that, as long as the lines remain open, communication will eventually result. Cut those lines and all hope of success is lost.
Having said that, I want to make another point that should be obvious. It is better to communicate well in the first place. We’ll be discussing our descriptive phrases in our catalog again very soon; of that, you may be sure. Time and money, as well as goodwill, are lost every time a customer misunderstands what they are reading. We need to speak with clarity and with precision to avoid misconceptions and errors. As the old saw goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
So, how are your communication skills? Do you work on them regularly? Our relationships depend on good communication. Husbands…“Huh?” and “Yeah,” don’t cut it. Usually, communication requires complete sentences. Wives…“You don’t ever…” is not a good way to start a discussion. If you think you’re not appreciated, talk about it. If you’re overwhelmed, say that. And, don’t quit trying. I guarantee you that silence will not be effective communication. The other person in the relationship may understand that you’re unhappy, but they will never understand the reason, nor find the solution. Keep talking!
And don’t forget the exhortation that the Preacher offered so succinctly so many years ago: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger.” In your communication, remember that love and truth are to be intertwined. Speak the truth clearly, but do it for the right reason.
With a little effort, the communication barrier can be broken. Unlike breaking the sound barrier, no explosion will result. But, like the sound barrier, you’ll never break the communication barrier if you just sit still.
It’s time we were up and talking!
“In the same way, unless you speak an intelligible message with your language, how will anyone know what is being said? You’ll be talking into the air!”
(I Corinthians 4:9~ISV)
“Men and women belong to different species and communications between them is still in its infancy.“
(Bill Cosby~American comedian and actor)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.
The email I opened today began with these words: “This is to inform you of a very important information which will be of a great help to redeem you from all the difficulties you have been experiencing in getting your long over due payment…” Skipping down to the bottom of the note, I was amused to see this warning: “Any action contrary to this instruction is at your own risk.” I laughed at the audacity of the author and deleted the post. I get these missives on a daily basis. You probably do too. This one appeared to have originated in Nigeria and, like all the others of its ilk, was nothing more than an attempt to gain information about those recipients who are foolish enough to reply to the email. What promises to offer personal redemption is actually an attempt to enslave you.
|Photo: Evelyn Simak|
Most of us would never be so foolish as to be caught in one of these traps, but a number of greedy people have. A few of them are still digging out of the financial hole left by the scam. Most people are naturally skeptical of these too-good-to-be-true offers, because they understand that there are unscrupulous people just waiting for willing victims to walk into their webs of deceit. We have been warned again and again about these crooked schemes and are constantly looking out for them. We are wise to do so.
But, I can’t quit thinking about that audacious sentence at the bottom of the email. “Any action contrary to this instruction is at your own risk.” I see warnings like these on a regular basis. Band instrument manufacturers insist that their product will only function at its best when you purchase and use their lubricants to maintain the valves and keys. I can’t count the number of times that customers have come into my store, requesting these proprietary products by brand, insisting that their instrument will suffer if they don’t have them. The sad fact is that most of these companies purchase their products from the major distributors and re-label them with their own name and trade-mark, marking them up many times the actual value. They often are inferior products, rather than superior ones. I do my best to gently guide these misguided folks to the other quality products, but there are some who insist. A similar warning is there about power supplies for electronics, replacement heads for percussion instruments, tuning machines for guitars, and any number of other products. All are scams to produce ongoing profit for a company which was only owed the profit for the original item, but has figured out how to guarantee a return for the life of the instrument. Like the writer of the Nigerian email, they understand that many will be foolish enough to take their bait.
But, again, I think about the audacious warning. “Any action contrary to this instruction is at your own risk.” I’m thinking that there actually are times when such a warning needs to be heeded. I remember the time the next-door neighbor kids didn’t. It cost them a lot of expensive camping and hunting equipment, to say nothing of the fact that they almost burned down the neighborhood. The simple instructions on the side of a can of charcoal lighter fluid should have averted the entire affair. “Do not spray contents on an open flame. Combustion will occur!” A rather simple principle, one would think. It wasn’t simple for these boys! They had pitched their tent in the middle of the semi-wooded lot, leaning their .22 rifles against a nearby log, and started a fire. Supper was prepared and eaten and they settled in for the evening. It was still light out, but there wasn’t much to do except sit around and talk. Bored, one of them, probably Mike, got the idea that it might be fun to shoot a little lighter fluid on the smouldering campfire. It was.
Within seconds, the flames were leaping higher, and each subsequent squirt from the metal can was infinitely more exciting, as the flames began to chase the liquid up toward the young man wielding the can. Finally though, the real combustion occurred, as the flames followed the liquid up and jumped to the lighter fluid soaked hands of the screaming boy. Mike dropped the can, banging his hands on the ground to douse the flames that seemed as if they would burn away his flesh. Seconds later, Mike and his brothers were fleeing the conflagration, as their campsite–tent, guns, and all–went up in flames. Within moments, what started out as a simple campfire was a raging grass fire that threatened to consume not only the trees and dry grass nearby, but the homes bordering the area, also. I know. We stood and frantically sprayed our property with a garden hose as the fire department worked to extinguish the main fire. It was a scary evening. All because a few boys didn’t know to pay attention to the warnings.
Somehow, it is in our nature to ignore words of warning. “Hot!” we tell the child, yet he has to touch the burning stove to find out for himself. “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear,” states the admonition on the automobile mirror, but again and again, people move into the other lane too soon, forcing vehicles behind them to brake suddenly or be hit. Stop signs are ignored, lifeguard’s instructions unheeded, warnings from doctors merely laughed at. Of course, you know that it is indeed in our nature to ignore instructions. One of the earliest stories I learned in Sunday School was the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Their Creator said, (and I paraphrase), “Any action contrary to this instruction is at your own risk.” The serpent planted the suggestion, but the pair determined their, and our, course. Again and again as a child, I wondered why in the world they would ignore the warning. How could they ruin it for all of us?
But now, I look deeply into my own heart and know, beyond any doubt, that I would have made the same choice. I still do, even today. My guess is that you do also.
Do you suppose that we might be better off if we would heed warnings which are desperately vital, but ignore the others? The false ones, the ones primarily intended to impoverish and to harm us are fairly easy to spot. Just as easily, we can determine the warnings that actually do demand our attention and our obedience. And, the most important of these have to do with our very being, not just with physical safety.
You see, there is an instruction manual. It was not written by some scam artist in Nigeria, nor by an ad writer on Madison Avenue. Truly, we ignore these instructions at our own risk. Contrary to popular belief, this manual actually contains a lot more encouragement than warnings. It would be well worth spending some time with. I bet you already have one of these volumes somewhere. It is the best-selling book of all time.
“Any action contrary to this instruction is at your own risk.”
I do like the idea of being “redeemed from all the difficulties”, too. That day really is coming…
“‘Will you walk into my parlor?’ said the Spider to the Fly,
‘Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy;‘…
‘Oh no, no,’ said the Fly, ‘To ask me is in vain;
For who goes up your winding stair can ne’er come down again.‘”
(The Spider and the Fly” poem by Mary Howitt~1799-1888
“Subtlety may deceive you; integrity never will.”
(Oliver Goldsmith~Irish poet/author~1730-1734)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.
It was one of the most popular of the prizes the Lovely Lady offered to her piano students. They would practice for at least twenty minutes every day, a fact attested to by their parent’s signature on a weekly form. In return, the children would receive something the Lovely Lady called “music bucks”, one for each full practice session. These little pieces of paper were photocopied facsimiles of money, not unlike the paper with which you buy and sell property in a Monopoly game. The kids loved to earn music bucks! They practiced like never before. Never mind that in the end, each scrap of paper was only valued at something around three cents. You see, when they had acquired a significant number of the music bucks, they could shop through the gift counter at the music store, a veritable treasure trove of cheap Chinese-made items, each of with some connection to music. Pencils with pianos or music symbols embossed on them, erasers in the shape of musical notes, treble clef shaped key rings…these and many more were there for them to purchase with their hard-earned music bucks.
Of the many prizes they could redeem with their little pieces of paper was one that a lot of students worked tirelessly for any number of weeks to claim as their own. It was a little piano shaped bank. The see-through plastic gizmo actually sorted coins for you! You would drop in a coin and it would roll down the chute, stopping for an instant at one end before rolling back the other direction. In the process, it would roll over a series of tubes, eventually dropping into the appropriate sized one. The dime dropped into the first and smallest one, the penny next, then the nickel, and then the quarter. The quarter had the furthest to roll, since it was the largest and couldn’t drop into any of the previous tubes. Many times, I would place the bank out on top of the counter to demonstrate it for a student week after week, as they dreamed of the day when it would be theirs. “Plink!” The penny would drop and roll down to its proper tube, tumbling to rest at the bottom of the second one. “Plink!” There went the quarter as it rolled on down to the very end, like the penny, tumbling to lie flat in its tube. Every time, the sorter worked its magic, never allowing the penny to fall down the dime tube, nor the nickel to come to rest in the penny’s place. We had to be sure that there were always plenty of these around to satisfy the demand.
Nifty little tool, huh? I had a complaint with the system, though. You see, the sorting method for this little bank was flawed. How, you may ask? It only used a single criterion for determining which coin dropped into which tube–its size. Drop a Canadian penny into the slot and down the chute it rolled, right into the penny slot. Then if you took those pennies to the bank to cash them in, the teller was likely to refuse to accept the Canadian coin. It didn’t matter to the little piano-shaped bank if the coin were Japanese or Mexican, or even if it were a legal tender coin at all. If the round disc you dropped down the slot was similar in size to an American coin, it would be deposited into the slot that matched that size and nothing else. You might end up with a coin worth significantly less that the others in the same tube, or even with an object worth nothing at all.
Even worse, you could really cheat yourself if you made the error of dropping both of the coins above into the top of the piano-shaped-object. “Why in the world would that matter?” you may ask. It matters because of another criterion which the little bank couldn’t determine.
If you were only able to determine the size of the coin, you would make an error costing you many times the value of that quarter you think you see. The coin on the right in both pictures is one minted after 1965…what we call a “sandwich coin”. The silver content is negligible and the quarter is worth just twenty-five cents in legal exchange. The one on the left however, was made in 1964 and is made of silver, about 80% pure. Its real value today is over six dollars. Yet, the little bank, with its limited scope, simply rolls it down to the last slot and cavalierly drops it down with all the twenty-five cent ones. And, until someone with a keen eye and some sense of the value of silver comes along, anyone who looks at the stack of coins will evaluate it by simply multiplying the number of coins by the face value.
We live in a society, really in a world, which does the same thing as that little coin bank. We determine the value of people with limited criteria, judging by skin color, or economic status, or even by geographic factors. In the South, “Yankees” are scorned for their lack of sense and civility. Conversely, to a Northerner, all Southerners are “rednecks”, ignorant and uncultured. I grew up in a school system, as did many of you, where children were sorted into schools by their skin color and surnames. Laws prohibit that now, but there is no reduction in the number of ways in which we pigeonhole each other individually and as people groups.
On a more personal level, we have measurements, usually unwritten and unspoken, by which we judge each other. If any of us were asked, we would protest that we never would even consider doing such a thing. But daily, I see the ways in which we do exactly that.
I remember a particular gentleman, who a few years ago, stood in front of me in my music store. He needed a bath and as he spoke, gesturing passionately with his hands, my vision took in his fingernails on both hands, almost entirely consumed with fungus.His acne-scarred face was smiling at me, but his eyes showed the hurt, as he told me how he was treated in many of the local business establishments. Most people refused to treat him with respect, or to deal fairly with him. Although his mind was clear, and his communications skills adequate, because of his appearance,he was rejected and scorned. My mind went back to Biblical times and the way that lepers were cast out of society. His is not an isolated case. I’m sure you know of many just like him. Do you shake hands with them? Hug them? Treat them with respect? Offer them the same recognition you would give to anyone else?
How do we determine the value of a human being? The longer I consider it, the more I am forced to come back to the reality that our evaluation cannot be anything less than that of the One who created them, and us. There are no circumstances under which a person of a different color is worth more, or less; no evaluation to be made by a body shape, be it slim or obese; no separation to be forced because of social status or financial situation. We constantly look on these outward manifestations, but our Creator looks on the heart, seeing the pure silver, as well as the sandwich coin, and determining that both are of great worth to Him. And, to all, He offers His grace and His love. How can we do any less?
Clink! The coins still fascinate, as they roll down the chute. But, I will no longer be lulled into thinking that the evaluation of worth based on size is the final word. Perhaps, it is time for all of us to reconsider the other evaluations we hold dear as we walk along this path of life together.
However, if you have any silver quarters lying around, you are welcome to bring them by and drop them in my bank anytime…
“Then Peter replied, ‘I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism. In every nation, he accepts those who fear Him and do what is right.'”
“One of the most striking differences between a cat and a lie is that the cat has only nine lives.”
(Mark Twain~American author and humorist~1835-1910)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.