I stood in the phone booth in January 1992 — no not just before changing into Superman! By the way, do you remember phone booths? They were those ancient things, boxes actually. Perhaps you have seen them in Superman or Harry Potter movies? They were these glassed-in boxes on street corners in which was a black or silver box phone. A “payphone” so-called , into which you put dimes, nickles, and quarters to make a call. This was in ancient times: before cell phones, computers at home, and Netflix. Yes, there was a day before Netflix! Indeed, in that era, everyone had “landlines.” I know a few of you who still have those. Those are phones directly connected to a phone line that is a physical thing brought into the house! Anyway, I distract myself.
So, I was standing in the phone booth.
I’d dialed Karen at home. It was about 3 in the afternoon. I had just stepped out of the committee meetings with the Board of Ordained Ministry in the California-Pacific Annual Conference. I’d been interviewing with them all day, sitting before the whole board of 25+ people asking me questions about theology, the practice of ministry, and my personal life habits. It was daunting. I had been working in pastoral ministry at that point for about four years. This was my interview to be ordained an Elder. They had deliberated and decided to wait on that ordination. They wanted me to take another theology course and apply for another year. They had just given me their decision. I felt rejected and defeated. In addition, I was mad.
Karen answered and I unloaded my feelings about the day, the sense of defeat, the real sense that this meant my whole life was a failure. See, I am prone to exaggeration! She listened. She asked good questions. Then she said this, “Well, Brian, if you are this angry about their decision, I think then, they have made a good choice!”
What? Wisdom is not always what we are seeking when we are up against a wall.
When life doesn’t go as you wished it would, when you hit a dead end, when the failures stack up so high they look like the Empire State Building next to your small, insignificant life, you need a God-sighting. You need a point of seeing that Jesus gets you and gets the dilemma, and gets the journey you are on. But often when in the middle of defeat, seeing and hearing from God is toughest. For me, it took my wife on the other end of the landline to hold up the mirror. And through her wisdom, I began to listen to Jesus. It’s not that God is absent. God is never absent. Indeed, the disciples discovered this on more than one occasion.
But God was there.
It is when God is closest to us, oftentimes he is behind us, holding tightly. And that’s when we are least aware of the fact not only is he holding us, but often crying with us, too. Or sometimes, you might see God and Jesus having a belly laugh that finally, you are just where God wants you to be!
Standing there in that telephone booth I had no sense of God, only of my self-righteous anger. I had no sense of God’s design, nor plan, nor even the inkling that God was in THEIR decision. Instead, I only saw “red” and my justifications that they were wrong and I was right.
What opened up in my life because of that decision to make me “wait” was first a great class in theology by a guy who has since become a world-renowned author and professor. That was beautiful. But more than this was counseling with a man named Randy. He began to unpack the source of anger in my heart and led to the discovering of the abuse I had encountered as a kid more fully. Jesus was behind the “wait,” for He had plans I could not have seen.
In times of defeat, God does show up.
Jesus is behind the “wait” for us today too.
God is here in the time of defeat. God is in the middle of this halt in public worship, perhaps asking the church to begin to break the “law” to gather anyway. God is in the wait and in the feelings of defeat. God knows what is going on. His plan is always first to bring the church to repentance and then impact the world. Perhaps like me, stopped cold in the phone booth by Karen’s wisdom and needed to face my own diseased heart, we too need to face our hearts in this season.
There was such a guy at Whole Foods this week. He came in, wearing his mask for he believed every word of all the fear being spread. Besides, at Whole Foods, you are required to wear one. By the lettuce and carrots, mask-wearing Ted came upon a man named Bob who was not wearing a mask. Ted, I guess over the edge in this season, in his mask, and believing every scary word out there, was so mad, offended, exasperated by Bob’s maskless face. He would have run and gotten one of the free ones and handed it to Bob. He could have said, “Sir, did you know…?” But, instead, Ted broke physical distancing rules. He punched Bob. He punched him so hard, Ted knocked Bob out right there, by the vegetables in Whole Foods. Some bystanders shocked by Ted’s action, hurried to help Bob. But other bystanders looked pleased as if thinking, “That’s right, punch him!”
In my limited perspective, Ted demonstrated a level of stress in this society that exists due to the restrictions. I’m one of the people who does not believe all the pundits. I can promise you this — this season won’t end with a vaccine. The plans afoot will not stop there. But it does not matter what I think about all the things happening. I live in the same society as Ted and Bob, and I need to deal with my own heart in this season so I don’t take my heart out on others.
I mentioned something about mask-wearing to someone else this week, and she unloaded upon me. Her many words like hot lava came forth all over me. I felt smothered. I felt decked! I hope I make no one feel as I felt after that encounter. But perhaps I come across just as hot!
Here’s the rub: no matter what we believe about this season, we are all still IN IT. There is no escaping the season, the restrictions, the guidelines just because we might disagree with them. They will still exist. It is like being stuck in the phone booth! A dear brother reminded me today of the need to love those well who feel the least safe in this era, and one way is to abide by the restrictions they believe are important.
Another way to love them well is not to be critical of them, because of their choices in doing the best they know how to get through this season. So, abide and refuse to be critical.
But the best way to love them is this: to pay attention to Jesus in my own life. The best way to love them is to let Jesus change me. Jesus can do that. I was reminded this morning in a text sent by my daughter of a quote from James Clear: “Never underestimate your power to change yourself. Never overestimate your power to change someone else.” Right. Work on me. If I am feeling stressed, then let Jesus work on me. If I am feeling sad, upset, defeated by anything, let Jesus work on me. Let my own heart be changed so that I never take it out on someone else.
So, if God has you in a phonebooth like I was in way back in 1992 due to the pandemic, then pay attention. Listen to what God is speaking and let God work to change you and then you too work to change yourself by God’s power and strength to become the person you were always meant to be. For, I can promise, that phonebooth experience changed my life. May this pandemic change all our lives for the better as we let God into our hearts where the real change needs to happen.
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