People-Watching

The other day I was at Tucson Orthopedic Institute waiting to get two spinal injections. Karon had a concurrent dental appointment and I was alone in the lobby with my cane to steady me. It was a perfect time for people-watching.

At the hospital

Chartreuse phone-croppedA lady in black with a chubby little dog named Yoda talks on her chartreuse phone. (The little dog looks just like Yoda!) A star tattoo embellishes her shoulder.

A hollow-eyed man seems to be with her. A red lanyard circles his neck dangling some kind of badge. His crutches lie beside him. He tries to talk with Yoda’s mommy, but is cut off with her curt, “Shhhsss! I’m calling Mother.”

A gravelly voiced gentleman with silvery bed hair wheels into the discharge area. Although the aide who brought him leaves, he carries on a conversation about predicted thunderstorms and parking meters.

A harried, olive-skinned young man in faded green scrubs hurries by in squeaking tennis shoes as a well-dressed matron makes appointments on her cell phone.Lady on cell phone

A lady recently treated with spinal injections tries to stand up. She waves off the nurse who offers to steady her and promptly collapses on the floor. Some men rush to hoist her up and settle her into a chair. Twenty minutes later she tries to stand again. Again she declines assistance. Again her legs crumple like wet spaghetti! Two different men lift her into a chair. I left before she tried a third time. (Usually such reactions are temporary in case you’re worried about her.)

Two men opposite me (I’m guessing navy vets) chat while waiting for their wives. I overhear them assigning a type of ship to each lady as she arrives. “Yep. She’s a battleship.” “Destroyer.” One slow-moving gal wobbles by. They look at each other and smile. At the same moment they say in unison, “Aircraft carrier!” and break into chortles. Funny stuff to pass the time.

I suddenly remembered another time I watched people and wrote about them. I was in my 30s at a lunch counter in Wisconsin…

At the lunch counter

She sat, stretched to the full height of her six years. Her fragile fingers, smeared with too-pink dime store polish, clutched a fork and partially-demolished piece of cherry pie which gradually spread from the plate to the counter top.

Her mother chain-smoked the time away, nodding periodically to her bright-eyed magpie’s chatter. Behind the almond-shaped, black framed glasses her eyes reflected some other place. Her mind seemed to be far away. Perhaps she was tired.

A young man whose face was cratered with acne perched opposite me like a robin come back too soon. His eyes were full of winter, and his bony hands huddled around the empty cup which had long ceased to give warmth.

An old man in a green sweater had been cornered by a balloon-cheeked woman whose false teeth clacked like castanets.

A frail creature with soda straw hair peered through ashtray glasses at the menu in studied ritual before ordering a small coke. She alternated princess-sized sips with puffs of cigarette smoke aimed through wrinkled lips at some unseen target on the ceiling.

The teen-aged waitress bustled about with ice cubes and napkins, making excuses for dirty spoons. A hair net clung like a refrigerator magnet to her head, her once-white uniform apologizing for being a size too small.

I caught sight of myself in a mirror, hunched over some cherry cheesecake I didn’t need.  I noticed with embarrassment the frayed tee-shirt I was wearing.

We were a semi-circle of strangers from different worlds, careful not to look each other eye to eye, pretending interest in the backs of menus instead.

Now, as then, my thoughts were interrupted by God’s gentle voice, “I love these people.”

God’s interruption

How quickly we judge and criticize those different from us: “Too fat!” “Anorexic!” “Filthy!” “Snobbish!” “No taste whatsoever!” “How can they appear in public like that?” We can be merciless and unrelenting unless someone—or God—stops the flow of our criticism to remind us that we fit right into this group of oddballs.

People sitting in waiting room
People sitting in waiting room

From God’s perspective, everyone is a masterpiece of his loving creation. Each face windows his divergent touch. Every flaw to him is inexpressibly precious.

In our world where so many loud people are building walls and we are encouraged to divide people into groups I need to remember that we all are God’s handiwork. He knows every detail of every single life in every single country in the world and yet he loves each of us completely and unconditionally. When the prophet Samuel was selecting a king for Israel, he had a hard time finding the one God had chosen. That’s when God told him, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height….The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”[1]

What does God see in my heart? It is not my place to label and divide but to accept and love. When God is so hugely gracious to me can I not be gracious to those he loves?

[1] 1 Samuel 16:7

Are You Good Enough?

.Seattle, 1958. Sunset Junior High School. Ninth grade gym class. Fresh from the West Indies and with a heavy British accent, I dragged myself to the locker room one more time for the usual embarrassment. I was 5’ 4’’ tall and weighed almost 170 pounds. My thick glasses helped me see but nothing had helped me understand American sports. My sister was sent away to school when I was seven, leaving me the only child of busy missionary parents who were always at their desks or their work. I played the piano, ate (some afternoons I consumed an entire can of Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk), and read. It was not only American sports that confused me. It was all sports. I had witnessed perhaps one basketball game, no football games, and not even a cricket match, which would have been more likely in Trinidad.

We suited up and filed into the gym. Our ruddy-faced PE teacher hauled in a large bag of balls and shouted, “Basketball this week, fellas!” All but one of the boys were excited and were soon shouting, joking, and shooting baskets. I, the foreigner, stood against the wall trying to make myself invisible. We lined up. Two of my classmates were named captains and chose their teams—I was always last—and the game began. Of course, everyone had his turn and my inevitable moment arrived. I had watched carefully to try to learn what to do. Suddenly someone threw me the ball. By this time I had figured out that I should get the ball and shoot a basket, and so I shoved the ball under my arm and ran to the end of the court. The coach’s whistle shrilled and everybody stared. “Schlitz!” (He never got my name right.) “Don’t you know you are supposed to dribble the ball?!“ Dribble? My face crimsoned to uproarious, hooting laughter.

A Childhood Experience Grows into Dysfunction.

By my senior year things were much better. I was losing the accent and understood most idioms of American life. But the feeling of not being good enough was still lodged in my mind. Years later and in my forties with a beautiful wife and three great kids, the feeling roared back. It had nothing to do with sports now. It was my Christian faith that was the bugaboo. By this time I had a graduate degree from seminary and had been both a pastor and associate pastor in several congregations. I was supposed to have the answers, to understand theology, how prayer works, and just what to say to the parents of the dying child in the emergency room. But I didn’t have all of the answers. Some days I wondered if I had any answers.

My flawed theology led me to label some vocations as more valuable than others. To my way of thinking, missionaries were number one and pastors were number two. Others were three or lower. I’m sure my parents made mistakes but they never shared them with me. Ours was a proud denomination certain of ourselves and our right doctrine. Everything was right or wrong. No minister or pastor that I knew ever slipped up. In fact, Every Christian was supposed to be perfect and live above sin, period. We were a well-intentioned but graceless group who defined ourselves by the things we didn’t do. We didn’t drink. We didn’t smoke. We didn’t dance. We didn’t play cards. We didn’t swear. We didn’t go to movies. You get the picture. When Christians we knew did these things, they were labeled a failure.

And now I didn’t have the answers. I struggled at times with temptation. For the first time I recognized my deep-seated anger against my parents for sending me away to school and against the denomination that sent them to the mission field. I was trapped. I was angry and Christians don’t get angry. I doubted my beliefs and Christians should have strong faith. I could no longer do the job and had never been taught it was okay to fail. I felt that I was not good enough. Especially was I not good enough to be a pastor, and way below my falsely created pedestal of missionary perfection. And so I left pastoral ministry.

When we’re not good enough.

So what happens in this environment? People pretend. We hide. We hide our true selves and display what everyone thinks we should be. People do this everywhere. We pretend we’re someone else (posting flattering photos on Facebook or dating web sites). We adopt an attitude of superiority to hide our feeling of inferiority (swaggering around in front of our friends to impress them). This is usually an unconscious response to not feeling good enough. In today’s mean-spirited society, we are particularly susceptible to bullying. We’ve all read the tragic accounts of teenagers who have killed themselves because of being labeled as losers. Our culture praises beautiful bodies and the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Who can compete? The Business world demands being super productive and twelve-hour days. It’s no wonder so many of us feel inadequate, marginalized, and useless. “I’m not good enough” becomes a lifelong personality disorder that torpedoes relationships and fractures marriages and families. It leads to depression—and even suicide.

What now?

  1. Examine your negative self-image. Where does it come from? Peers and parents are two powerful forces and either or both can make you feel wonderful or horrible. Who is telling you that you are not good enough? Is it you or someone else? If it’s you, why do you feel inadequate? What event, experience, or relationship is fueling your pain?
  2. Ask a trusted friend about your perceptions. How do they understand the triggers that launch your self-doubt? What good things do they see in you? What do they believe about you?
  3. Are you transparent? Are you real or do you put up a front that you imagine others want you to be? No one can live a lie. It’s okay to be who you really are. Jettison friends who require you to pretend.
  4. Failure is temporary. Life is a learning process and you are very resilient. Thousands of people we think of as big successes failed countless times in the pursuit of their vision. It’s okay to fail. How you respond to failure is a key to succeeding in life.
  5. Failure is not a sin. Everyone fails at some point. It’s the nature of life. Only God is perfect but He is also gracious, understanding, and loving.
  6. Comparison is corrosive. Comparing yourself to others breeds dissatisfaction, jealousy, envy, and depression. In truth, we often don’t even know the people to whom we compare ourselves!
  7. God has made you a marvelous and creative person. You are created in His image. He loves you as you are. He gave up Heaven to walk this earth in human form to teach us that He understands. He died for your sins and, if you accept him, He will live in you now and give you Heaven forever.

Epilogue

By God’s grace, my story did not end with my departure from pastoral ministry. In the months and years that followed, God revealed Himself to me with remarkable and uplifting encouragement. He immediately gave me three scriptures verses which extinguished my burning sense of ministerial failure.

  • The first was from Mark 1:11, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.” I foolishly reacted with some statement about this verse being for Jesus. God said, “It is my Word and today it is about you.”
  • The second was from Haggai 2:23: “I will make you like a signet ring on my finger, says theLord, for I have chosen you.”
  • The third was from Luke 22:31-32 “Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat.But I have pleaded in prayer for you, [David] that your faith should not fail. So when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers.”

I have learned that God was neither surprised nor disappointed by my struggle. It made no difference to Him that I felt that I had failed. He didn’t mind that I was angry at the church or wanted nothing to do with further ministry. Nothing I was feeling disqualified me in His eyes from His original call upon my life to be his boy.

The grace that I was never taught but experienced from gracious people like my adopted parents, L. T.  and Helen Flynt, my parents-in-law, John and Florence Neal and, of course, my wife and children, has become a permanent and healing part of my life. They from the beginning have loved me as I am and their love is unconditional and forever. Thank you!

God graciously used me in other ministry positions, including two wonderful pastorates and now in retirement. He continues to heal me from my need to be perfect and reminds me not to compare myself with others.

I pray that you, too, will find His grace and peace.