Monday, March 27, 2006

While Standing in Line at McDonald's

So last week we had a tough morning getting out of the house in a timely manner. This meant that in order to drop the kids off in the carpool line without having to walk in to the office and sign them in as “late,” I left the house without eating breakfast. This is never a good thing for me because as soon as van door slides shut and the kids are sprinting to their classrooms with backpacks bouncing from their shoulders, I start thinking about putting something on my stomach to absorb the pot of coffee I’ve managed to down. Almost always I end up at the McDonald’s not far from the school. Sometimes I have a few bucks in my pocket, sometimes I scrape together just enough from the floor of the van and the change holder beneath the AC dials. I’m not especially proud of this – but see my post below of 2/10/06. All that stuff about lousy eating is true.

But I’m not telling this to talk about food or eating habits. On this particular morning, the real take-away from the visit to McDonald’s was a sign that was posted alongside the menu. It was on a plain white sheet of paper in a large black font, all caps. It read “PLEASE REFRAIN FROM TALKING ON THE CELL PHONE WHILE CONDUCTING BUSINESS AT THE COUNTER.”

This was interesting, provocative even. McDonald’s is a fast food restaurant . . . .fast food. And yet, the management of this particular McDonald’s felt compelled to instruct us to not use cell phones while ordering our # 2 combo meals. We can’t slow down enough to get our fast food. The time we’re supposedly saving by stopping at Mickey D’s isn’t enough. We need to keep multi-tasking, staying after it, getting it done, whatever “it” might be.

Just the day before I had read a wonderful story from Mark Buchanan’s latest book, The Rest of God - a book about Sabbath keeping. He tells about his wife’s grandmother, who lived in a gold-mining town. She had a very large stone in her garden and she regularly polished it, reasoning that since it couldn’t be moved it could made to look decent and thus beautify the garden.

On one occasion while polishing the stone, she noticed the slightest smear of something goldish. She touched it with her finger and saw on her fingertip a caking of gold dust. She felt a rush of adrenaline and began to polish the stone feverishly, scrubbing and scrubbing, seeing the gold dust accumulate more and more. After a few minutes she stopped for a break and as she wiped her brow she noticed that her wedding band was lopsided, thick and full on one side, thin and skinny on the underside – the part she had been rubbing against the stone. She had been sanding away her wedding band, chasing a treasure that didn’t exist while destroying a treasure she already had.

That’s the way too many of us live. That’s why a McDonald’s manager feels the need to discourage cell phone use as we order our fast food. What we know as fast isn’t fast enough. We’ve got to move faster, got to do more. We chase an elusive treasure and in doing so lose the treasures we already have.

Reflecting on those experiences from last week sent me searching for a Robert Frost poem that I’ve liked for a long time but had forgotten about. It’s called “A Time to Talk.”

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, “What is it?”
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall,
For a friendly visit.

Sadly, there isn’t time to talk, at least not enough time. We live our days looking around on the hills we haven’t hoed, the things left undone that whisper incessantly for our attention. We shout at interruptions, “What is it?” What now?”

Jesus seemed always ready to thrust his hoe in the ground, always willing to make his way to the stone wall for a visit. He stopped in crowds when someone had touched his garment; he heard the shouts of a blind man sitting on the curb, on the margins of the street traffic and action. Jesus stops and calls him over; calls the one to whom I might have said, “What is it?” What now?”

I’d like to live that way. Maybe a place to start is simply in making enough time to actually eat breakfast at home with my children; to begin the day by making my way to a table for a friendly visit.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13 NIV).

At some point during my first two years of college I discovered C. S. Lewis. That is, I discovered Lewis for myself – learned that such a man had actually existed. I might have heard of him before that, I don’t know. If so, I hadn’t paid attention. But somewhere between 1980 and 1982 I actually held a book in my hands and read words that he had written.

This was important because it was right about this time that the Christianity that had come to me in childhood Sunday school classes, Vacation Bible School, and summer youth camp experiences was no longer working. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t true. It just wasn’t working. It was as if I was away at college trying to wear a favorite jacket that had been given to me when I was nine and then altered somewhat when I hit the ninth grade. It was threadbare. It didn’t fit me. It wasn’t working.

And then I listened for the first time to C. S. Lewis. It wasn’t Lewis himself or some idea I found in him that gripped me. I think what happened was for the first time I heard someone thinking hard about the faith. Here was a man asking hard questions, looking at objections, offering a cogent defense of all that I had known since Sunday School and VBS and youth camp. That started me down road that led to plenty of others who were thinking about faith and thinking about the scriptures.

Thinking became important.

It still is. I continue to hold in very high esteem those Christians who blend passionate faith with the life of the mind. I’m amazed at the collection of Calvin’s commentaries that sit on my bookshelf – all that careful reflection on the bible written down without a laptop. I marvel at Jonathan Edwards’ pastoral exploration of true signs of grace in Religious Affections. I wonder how he was able to pastor a congregation and spend 13 hours a day in his study. And my admiration isn’t reserved for analytical types only. The pastor poets John Donne and George Herbert merit deep respect as well.

Maybe because these figures from Christian history, as well as so many of my own pastors and professors, have impressed me and influenced me in some way, the statement about Peter and John in Acts 4:13 hit me in a fresh way recently. After healing a crippled man at one of the temple gates, these two preachers are arrested. The day after, they are hauled before the official religious leaders and there they present a powerful and defiant defense. As they do so, their accusers are astonished. They note that these men are not educated. They have no credentials to boast of. They are “common men” (ESV). But what they also recognize clearly is that these men “had been with Jesus.”

I’ve been astonished by great learning. For that reason, I’ve often wished I could astonish others with great learning – or at least the very modest degree of learning I’ve attained. But those who examined and grilled Peter and John were astonished for the exact opposite reason. These men are not educated – but they’ve been with Jesus.

Calvin Miller once remarked that his seminary diplomas “say in bold gothic script that I cannot be arrested for impersonating a preacher.” At one point in his own ministry he felt led of the Spirit to remove his diplomas from the wall and stick them away somewhere until they became less important to him.

Some people – certainly not all - might be impressed by a diploma, but they won’t be astonished. Degrees conferred by the academy may elicit envy or admiration, but not astonishment. The kind of astonishment Peter and John evoked came from something that was not obtained in a book. It wasn’t learning as much as it was insight and wisdom and power. Those things can’t be had by reading, at least not reading in and of itself. Those things come from listening; listening to the voice of Jesus, the whisperings of the Spirit.

It occurs to me now that the learned people who have astonished me were also people who listened as much as they read. What I know about myself is that I live perpetually frustrated at my lack of time to read. But what if I had more time, or made more time to read? So what? If there’s no listening, then “all is vanity.” “Vanity” in every sense: both empty and conceited.

“We don’t have silver and gold, but what we do have we’ll give to you.” Those were the words that landed Peter and John in trouble to begin with. What powerful words. And how fortunate for the cripple at the gate (and for us) that they didn’t follow those words by reading a book to him. They simply spoke the name of Jesus and made the man walk.

That’s more than impressive. That’s astonishing.