The notebook of the heart

Someone gave me a tablet of notebook paper one time when I was a young child. But this wasn’t just any tablet of paper. It was the prettiest I’d ever seen. Each page had little hearts decorating it, and lines for writing. There were four sections in the notebook for four beautiful colors: pink, blue, yellow, and green. I never wanted to use a single page in my notebook. I only ever opened my notebook when I was in my safe, secret closet. Once there, I’d flip through it admiringly without placing even one word or doodle on the page.

I wish I was as careful with my heart as I was with this notebook.

Instead of letting just anyone write or doodle anything they want on my heart, I wish I had reserved my pages only for God. I wish in the quiet moments of the day, in the secret time of prayer, I had opened my heart only to Him to etch what He wanted on those pages.

Too many times I’ve handed my heart to a stranger to free draw on the most precious scroll I have to give: the one displayed on my heart. When someone gives me the finger in traffic or snaps at me on the phone, I feel as though I’ve opened up the special pages of my heart and let a stranger desecrate all over them. I’ve heard this comes from low self-esteem, but, really, I think it comes from low protection of my heart. Some of us learned, when we were very young, that we were expected to open our hearts up to everyone. It was our “duty”. Others of us just simply trusted anyone and everyone with our heart, and got some very bad scribbles on our precious hearts as a result.

But what hurts even more is when we hand the most sacred scroll of our hearts over to be written on my family and friends, and they fall miserably short of the brilliant masterpieces we were expecting them to leave for us. Even the best, most well-meaning friend or relative cannot replace God’s work in our hearts. Our best relationships on earth will always inevitably scribble ugliness on our hearts at one time or another.

There is one more way we acquire scribbles on our heart—and these the most painful scribbles of all. These are those we self-inflict, through what we thought were wise intentions, when we were sure we had our best in mind. These are the drawings we make on our hearts in a feeble attempt to fill up the promise of beauty with our scrawling, page-piercing sin. It’s hardest of all for me to move past these words, because they were the ones I wrote myself. We find no eraser on the pen we once so glibly took up and with which we roared through whole pages of our lives.

I was wise to keep my notebook empty as a child, saving it for only the best of the best. But I made one terrible mistake. I never did want anything written in it. I was so protective, I never used the notebook for the very purpose it was created.

In the same way, some of us have had our tender hearts so mishandled that we simply do not trust God to write anything on our hearts. We mummify our hearts, with police tape across its boundaries, not allowing anyone inside, keeping it eternally cold and empty. Those of us with such troubles need to look to God, the extraordinary artist of all creation, and trust Him with the pen so that He may inscribe beauty upon us. It may not be in the way we expect or by the means we counted on, but God promises to pick up the pen only for the most breathtaking beauty on the heart of anyone who will trust His penmanship.

Finally, what about those of us who already have a notebook desecrated by numerous pounds of graffiti written willy-nilly all over our most sacred possession? What then?

We must hand our hearts over to the One and Only who can cleanse the most defiled heart like the machines that soak old paper, separating ink from pulp, and create new paper to start over fresh and perfect once more.

Create in me a clean heart, O God. (Psalm 51:10a, NLT)

The ant

When I was a child, the movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was a blockbuster.  There was one scene, though, I couldn’t watch.  It was the fight between the children’s gentle ant and a vicious scorpion.

The children (after being shrunk to pea-size) befriend an ant.  The ant escorts them across their backyard safely.  But, all of a sudden, a scorpion appears flashing its pincers.

The scorpion wants the children.

The ant faces the scorpion head-on in battle.  They fight fiercely, and they fight to the death.  The scorpion kills the ant.  He drags his prize away, leaving the children alone.

I couldn’t understand it.  Tears rolled down my cheeks.  Why had the sweet ant died for the children?  Why hadn’t he fled and left the children to die?  And why did he have to die, after he was so brave?

All around us, again and again, is the melody of the Gospel, sometimes faint, sometimes piercing.  But if you listen, you will hear shadows of redemption’s story in the heartbeat of what moves us most . . even in a children’s movie.

Why did the ant die?  He didn’t have to.  He could have fled.  But he loved the children more than his own life.  In a beautiful puzzle–one in which we can never lay down the final piece–is the heroism of the ant, that he would give his life on behalf of the lives of the children.  That he would treasure the children who had done no great service to him, regard them so precious that he would be willing to undergo torture and death for them.  And in this symbolism is the mystery of God’s love.  For us.

Jesus Christ didn’t have to die for us.  He had far less reason to die for us than the ant had to die for the children.  The children didn’t do anything to deserve the scorpion’s wrath, but we turned to our enemy for protection from goodness in the most grave error in mankind’s history.  It would be as if the children ran to the scorpion for protection from the ant.  We became enslaved to the enemy, sure to be stung by his poison.

But Christ still defended us.  When we didn’t want to be defended by Him, when we didn’t even realize what serious trouble we were in, when we thought He was the enemy . . even then, Christ died for us (see Romans 5:6, 5:8, 5:10).

The ant and the scorpion . . are only a faint retelling of the love Christ holds for you and I.

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. (1 John 4:9, NIV)


Unwrapping Christmas Presents

I don’t think there is any experience in childhood quite like unwrapping Christmas presents after emptying a loaded stocking. Ripping through wrapping paper was one of my favorite sounds as a child, especially when my hands were doing the ripping.

And what was inside was always a treat. Shiny see-through plastic packaging, revealing a beautifully displayed toy on the inside (tightly tied to the back of the cardboard scenery). A new doll in a yellow dress. Or a Barbie with a jacuzzi that really bubbled up the water. Or a My Little Pony with diapers and a bottle. Those were the days.

Somewhere along the line, presents just lose something. I don’t know why. But sometime in between being a child and becoming an adult, that certain holiday sparkle vanished from the present ceremony. Somewhere along the line gift cards took over. Somewhere along the line wrapping paper and big puffy bows and nostalgic Christmas tags stopped being necessary.

What happened? What caused the adventure to end?

In Revelation, Jesus indites a church that they “have left” their “first love” (see Revelation 2:4, NASB).

Somewhere along the way, we can lose our first love (or sweetest, richest love) for Christ. Much like how Christmas presents become old hat, so do God’s presents to us. Much like how we take shortcuts by buying gift cards or not wrapping presents, we begin to take shortcuts in our thank-you’s to God. Our soliloquies and poems and love songs become polite, obligatory, punctual, and brief, “Thank you’s”. Our extravagant love for the Savior who gives us forgiveness, mercy, grace, and spiritual gifts becomes small. We forget the sparkle we had every time we used to open a gift from Him. The remarkable becomes nice. The miraculous becomes all right. The stunning work within us becomes okay.

Let’s rewind our lives and remember who we used to be, and who we have become by the gifts of Jesus. And let’s get back to opening up the presents He gives us with positively superb glee.

Easter egg hunt

When I was not much more than a toddler, I participated in a local Easter egg hunt. There was a pink Easter bunny walking around and waving, and eggs scattered through a field. My parents put me on the starting line with the other children. I was ready to go.

Someone counted down, “On your mark . . get set . . go!” only for the little kids. And we were off. I toddled out.

About the time I discovered an egg, the announcer was saying, “Go!” again, only, this time, it was for the big kids.

I did not get that egg.

The big kids came racing out. One of them snatched the egg I was going to pick up. And they started picking the field clean of Easter eggs.

Slowly, slowly, I tried to go after eggs. But there was no hope of catching up to the big kids. Fortunately, they missed a few, and I found a few eggs for my basket. But it was hardly a grand success. There were some big prizes offered if your Easter egg had a certain slip of paper inside. I hadn’t collected hardly any and I didn’t get a single one of those big prizes.

Do you ever feel in life like you’re the little kid toddling around with big kids snapping up all the good stuff in life? This has been called a “dog-eat-dog” world. And sometimes, we just feel behind the 8-ball.

God’s Kingdom flips our world upside-down on its head. Like something out of Alice in Wonderland is Jesus’ beatitudes, if we really think about what He was saying in them.

“Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5, NASB)

Does that sound anything like what they teach us here on earth? If I’d been standing in the crowd that day, I might have wondered what planet Jesus came from.

But here Jesus is telling us about God. God blesses the gentle. The ones who toddle out and gingerly pick up what’s been left behind by others. The ones who make this world a little softer on the edges.

Who are you more like? If you’re the gentle one, take heart. There’s a part of your story that hasn’t been read yet. A surprise chapter waiting toward the end.

Published in: on October 24, 2014 at 7:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Zebra-Striped Gum

I was totally intolerant of bullies as a kindergartener.

One time we were on the bus, and a girl was handing out Zebra-Striped gum. Of course it was a huge hit. Kids flocked around her, pleading for a piece of gum. She had a whole pack, or nearly all of one, and it was more gum than I’d ever had in my possession.

Still, I didn’t like Zebra-Striped gum. But I watched with interest as she passed it out to the crowding children. One boy, however, she wouldn’t give a piece to no matter how he begged. I liked that boy. And that made me mad.

“Can I have a piece of gum?” I asked innocently.

She gave me a piece, and I immediately handed it over to the boy who hadn’t gotten one.

I haven’t yet forgotten that exchange.

The warmth in his smile. The glowing victory between the two of us. We were friends.

You know, what I did wasn’t that big of a deal . . but still, you don’t see it happen everyday. Lots of days, the left-out kid doesn’t get the Zebra-striped gum. And that goes right on into adulthood. Most of the time, the bullies win out.

If Jesus had been on the bus that day, I’m confident that He would have given away His piece of Zebra-Striped gum, too. Not because He didn’t want it, but because He saw someone else wanted it who didn’t get any.

Jesus came for the sick and the hurting. The forgotten and the broken-down.   The disheveled and the bullied. Jesus says about Himself that He “came to seek and to save the lost” (from Luke 19:10b, NIV).

That’s how I know He’d hand out His piece of Zebra-Striped gum, too.

Like a teddy bear on a courthouse awning

One stage I had as a kid was throwing my favorite Beanie Baby off a high place for my mom to catch down below. We played this game without problems . . until one day I got over ambitious. For a reason I don’t remember, we were at the courthouse. I was standing on the porch of the courthouse, a couple stories above my mom.

I threw Sniffy (my Beanie Baby) down to her, only she didn’t catch him. She couldn’t catch him. He landed on an awning.

My mom and I were so busted for playing this kind of game. She thought about what to do, then told me she was going back in the courthouse to get help. I waited up top, where I could see the whole thing unfold.

Fortunately, she came out with a maintenance worker and not a judge. The worker had long broom. He jostled the awning with the broom. With each bump, my Beanie Baby got closer to the edge. At last, he fell off. Mom picked him up, and he was safe once more.

Did you ever feel like you were a Beanie Baby on a courthouse awning? Worse, did you ever feel like God put you there, and you had no idea why He did?

I had this kind of uncomfortable experience this past year. My husband and I were casually stopping at a store to get caffeinated jelly beans (very helpful for waking up in the morning). I saw a man, probably homeless, with no good coat on, walking out in the rain.

I was already feeling uneasy. I did not want to get involved in this.

But God was feeling a different kind of unease, and He kept working on my heart.

At last, I gave in, and said something like, “Okay, God, if he’s still standing where I can see him when we come out of the store, I’ll . . have Ben offer him his coat.”

I sort of acted like I was “appeasing the gods”, rather than talking to my very personal Friend up in Heaven.

Not too surprising to me, when we left the shop with our caffeinated jelly beans, he was still there. I’d seen him go in and come out of a store, and I figured he was asking for money.

Ok. God wasn’t going to let me go on this one.

“Ben,” I said, “I think God wants us to help this man. Could you go offer him your coat?”

Ben is amazing in his faith. He agreed, got out of the car, and left.

That coat was expensive, but it was old. We could replace it. No big deal. Ben needed a new coat anyway.

Ben came back still wearing his coat. And with someone I did not expect to be seeing again. He came back with the stranger!

“He’s needing to get home,” Ben explained.

I was aghast. So he was needing to get home? How was this our problem? What happened to my plan of simply giving him a coat and leaving him out there in the rain and cold?

Before I could say “all I wanted was caffeinated jelly beans”, the man was in the backseat of our car. And, I began to hear his story.

He was grateful, very grateful, for the ride. He had just been released from the hospital, and found out he had no transportation back to his home. His friend he lived with worked at a Wal-mart up on the north side of our town (the other side from where we were) and he asked for us to take him there, where he could wait. He’d been going in and out of stores asking for taxi money.

I marveled at this. This man had just gotten out of the hospital, and here he was out in the cold, walking without proper clothes?

I heard God loud and clear: What if this was you?

I was still freaked out, but I was flooded with a desire to take this man to the Wal-Mart where he needed to go. And, after all, was it really any big deal?

But then I felt God prompting me again. Oh no. Not God again. (Have you ever thought this? Would you admit to it? Here I am, admitting to it!!)

“Ben,” I whispered as he drove, “I think we need to buy him lunch.”

Ben immediately agreed. We stopped at Chik-fil-A and got him a value meal. He was enormously thankful.

But then came the biggest hurtle of all. We were almost to the Wal-Mart, we were on the north side of town, everything seemed to be going smoothly, and I heard from God again.

I want you to buy him Andy’s.

WHAT?? Andy’s is a very popular frozen custard chain in our city. There was one right before we got to Wal-Mart.

Well, this was ridiculous, I rationalized. I was like Sniffy on that awning. What was God thinking?? I mean, this wasn’t logical. A man needs to get to shelter out of the rain, yes. A man needs to eat, yet. But does a man need frozen custard? Really, God?

But God wouldn’t let me off. So, finally, finally, I made a lukewarm agreement with God.

Okay, God. If we get stopped at this stoplight, I’ll tell Ben.

Guess what?

We got stopped at that stoplight.

“Ben,” I said, on edge and nervous and embarrassed. “I think we should buy him Andy’s.”

Ben is remarkable. He just simply stopped at Andy’s, and we bought him a treat, I think it was a large vanilla milkshake.

We dropped the man off at Wal-Mart. Ben walked in with him. He found out the man needed like 6 or 8 dollars for his prescription from the hospital. I wasn’t the only one whose heart was being reached by God. Ben went to the ATM and got him the money.

Sometimes, sometimes we feel like teddy bears on awnings where we are certainly not supposed to be.

And sometimes God uses us most while we’re there.

Disguised hearts

I wanted to be a spy when I grew up.

I loved to dress up in old clothes of my parents and costumes I’d acquired over the years. I had a whole box full of disguises. And I even carried around an orange, plastic case of quick-change disguises for emergency circumstances. One of my disguises included a puppet dog, who I guess was supposed to make me look like a different person!

As I grew, I learned that being a spy wasn’t the only time a disguise came in handy. After painful rejection experiences, I began putting on a costume around friends and sometimes family. As a quick change artist, I could hide my woundedness behind a plastic smile and happy tone of voice. But on the inside, I still hurt.

There’s one place I was most inclined to wear my disguise, and that was when I approached Heaven’s throne. To talk to God was surely to need a costume of some sort. A costume to make myself more appealing, more likeable . . less cumbersome, less frail.

For years my prayers to God were often no more than repeated mantras said over and over again to try to gain favor. The more mindless, the better. My face before God was one that hid my deepest problems and most scary questions. Though I didn’t have an orange case to carry with me, I had plenty of ways to deflect God from exploring my real heart—or so I thought.

What I’ve found, though, is that God isn’t looking for quick change artists who always say “fine” when He asks how they are and never carry their troubles to Him. Rather, He’s looking for real people who want a real relationship with Him. He is ready and able to pick up our burdens for us, and labor with them all the way to Golgotha. And even though He already knows all things, He longs for us to trust Him enough to share our true hearts with Him.

God showed His preference for the real in the story of Job. Even though Job’s friends were full of beautiful-sounding, daintily-gilded sayings about God, it was Job’s hard questions that God found honest. Even though Job asked some fierce questions of God, God directed Job to make a sacrifice of atonement for his friends, not for himself.

The next time you’re tempted to come before God with a disguise, remember this: God already knows who you are and He wants you to show Him the real you. Not only can He handle all the dark parts of you, but He can even bring light to them and transform you into the son or daughter He dreams of you becoming.

O Lord, you have examined my heart

and know everything about me. (Psalm 139:1, NLT)

Retaining grace

I wore a retainer of one kind or another most of my childhood. One of the ones I wore was cemented to my teeth. Later I was placed with a removable retainer. ADHD kid that I was, I got in the habit of popping it in and out. That was fine and good for a while, but then came time for a more exciting feat. I started poking the tip of my tongue in and out of the narrow gap between the plastic and the wire as I popped the retainer in and out.

You can probably guess this didn’t end well. One day, whilst sticking my tongue in the gap, my tongue didn’t come out. Now this is not only upsetting, but pretty ridiculous and embarrassing, too. I either had to show my mom what I’d done—there was no denying how I got myself in this mess—or I would have to hide in my bedroom for the rest of my life.

I went to show my mom and tried to explain, which is no easy thing to do when a) there is no rational explanation and b) you have a retainer stuck on your tongue. I remember my mom’s immediate concern. She took me on her lap and began prying the retainer off my tongue. I started bawling because it hurt and I was scared. But at last she got it off and I was free.

She didn’t say much of anything to me about it, except for a quiet, “Don’t stick your tongue in your retainer anymore.”

Sometimes (okay, most of the time) we’re afraid to go to God when we mess up in a stupid way. Sometimes we’re afraid God will use our vulnerability to harass us even more than what we’re already feeling from the world and from ourselves. So many of us hide away from Him, retainer trapped on our tongue, not sure at all of what to do next.

One of my favorite verses is a prophesy from Hosea 3:5b (NIV) about God’s people who have rebelled: “They will come trembling to the LORD and to his blessings in the last days.”

I was insecure to show my mom what I’d done, and I went to her as humble as could be. I totally needed her help and I totally had no excuse for myself. But instead of using the opportunity for a victory speech to smear more guilt on me, she simply pried the retainer off my tongue.

I kinda think about my retainer story when I read the verse above. God’s disobedient people will see that God is so good that they come back shaking like a cold, wet stray dog. And what does God do? Pick them up, wrap a warm blanket around them, and cuddle them.

There’s no need to fear coming back to God. Come trembling and find His awesome goodness.

When you feel like you’ve wasted your life

What if the last several years, or decades, of your Christian life have been wasted? What if you haven’t been changing much at all? Or what if you came to Christ later in life, and you are filled with remorse over all the years that were lost?

I think the most encouraging words in the Scripture for such a case is a parable Jesus told in Matthew 20:1-16. I’m retelling it here with my imagination.

It’s about a set of unemployed fellows waiting around on Main Street for a job. Some of them look eager—suit and tie, slicked back hair, briefcase in hand. But others look like they hardly expect to be hired at all—tattered blue jeans, cigarette in hand and one on the ground under scuffed boot.

Then out comes the president of a multimillion dollar crop industry. He owns all the land the eye can see and he’s got a monopoly on the market for all the wheat and corn grocers in town. No one can compete with the quality of his crops, and anything at all that’s made in the nearby factories with corn or wheat all use his products. He’s the most successful businessman in town and everyone aspires to work for him.

And yet here he is, going out on the street looking for the everyday unemployed.

He starts first with the men in suits. (The guys with the cigarettes went off for a while to get another pack and missed their chance.) The men in suits jump at the offer for a job, briefcases trembling in their hands. They can hardly wait to get started. They nearly have conniption fits when they find out how much they’re going to be paid. Already they can picture themselves at their kitchen table talking it over with their wives and bragging to their children that night.

Off they go, into the fields, rattling off a long list of their qualifications and education to ensure they get the job. The president listens to their blathering boasts, but doesn’t make any comment. Instead, he leaves them in his field to crop dust and goes back out in his limousine.

He drives right back to Main Street, and now he finds the down-and-out unemployed. (They came back from Kum-n-Go with fresh cigarettes.) They’re unskilled laborers. They did graduate high school, and some of them have a few years of college experience, but they just can’t seem to get it together. Their past is checkered with jobs that didn’t work out. But now, they assure him, they’re changed. They want to do better. They wear nice clothes they got at the secondhand shop, and they’re really trying to impress him—though they’re a little embarrassed they’re not wearing suits and ties like the first men he hired.

Nevertheless, he extends an unbelievable offer to them. They too are hired on the spot. They can come work in his fields. It’s a bit later in the morning, and he doesn’t promise what he’ll pay them, he only assures them of this: they have a job and value with him. They LEAP at the offer. More humble than the first crew, they get to work quietly, hoping to somehow make up for their lack of experience by their dedication to him.

He smiles at them and gets back in his limousine for another trip to Main Street.

This time he sees the drop-outs. They’re easy to recognize with their tattoos and body piercings—so that’s where their college fund went. These guys never had a hope of higher education. They either flunked out, got expelled, or simply gave up on the educational system. Some of them have learning disabilities, some are chronic underachievers, others just never got why they were supposed to pay attention to any authority.

They are not particularly trying to get a job. They’d like one, sure, but they’re too cool to look needy. They share lights with each other, and not all of them are smoking nicotine. They tell coarse jokes and cough a lot and wait for something to come along worth capturing their attention. They haven’t met the president of the crop industry so far because they’ve been in the movie theater watching an R-rated movie.

The president comes back—for them. And they are so shocked to hear this, that this fact alone changes something very deep inside of them.

He came back to the middle of town, a third time, looking for them? He wants them to work in his fields? No one reputable has ever asked them such a thing before, or even hinted that they were worth the time of day.

They get to work in his field and have all kinds of responsibility? He is giving them the opportunity to showcase their responsibility (they didn’t even know they had responsibility!) and their integrity (what’s that, they ask him?).

You better believe they have a change of heart! Cigarettes are tossed to the cobblestone and stamped out. Packs are put in front pockets. Wild, long hair is suddenly combed back with fingers. Skull and serpent tattoos are halfway covered by shirt-sleeves. Coughs are made, and the troop is ready.

(Of course, the question comes up from one man who’s just learned the meaning of integrity, “You even want me—after you know I’ve been smoking weed?” One nod of the president, and a look comes over the man’s face that no one’s ever seen before. Tears stud his eyes, his hands shuffle in his pockets, and he brushes at his arms as if the explicit tattoos might just fall right off. The president offers to drive him back, since he’s more than a little high and having trouble walking.)

This group of men is the rowdiest yet. But they’re not rowdy anymore in a crass way. Rather, their laughter is downright contagious. The other men in the field look up in shock to hear joy so loud it’s almost frightening. The first men, with their suits and ties, squint their eyes for a few minutes as if they can’t be seeing correctly. Then they straighten their ties, mumble something, and get back to work. The second men smile in wonder, heads cocked to the side, trying to figure out what is going on. They wave back when the newcomers wave at them.

But the president is off again.

It’s late in the day now, almost dusk, and it’s time for the daily release of prisoners. They’ve just come out on Main Street and they have absolutely no idea what to do. Most of them aren’t wanting to serve any more time, but they sure don’t see anyone hiring them. They have not a clue what they are going to do. They don’t know if their family—what’s left of it—is still in town, or if they’ll even be welcome back home. They sit down at the fountain on Main Street with heavy hearts, wondering if they should try to fish around in the fountain for change even though a police officer’s watching them like a hawk.

They see the president in his limo, and cries of scorn and curses ring from the group. One man spits on the ground in contempt. They roll their eyes, rub their noses, and sneer.

Imagine their shock when the president walks towards them.

They have absolutely no idea what he’s doing, and they’ve never seen this kind of behavior out of the elite before. They don’t know if he’s gone crazy or if he’s coming to tell the police officer to have them re-arrested. But then he’s right in front of them, not one ounce of fear in his face. And he invites them; he asks them; he really wants to know: Do they want to come work for him?

At first there are chuckles and peals of laughter. Then there are smart-alleck words and curses as the silence gets uncomfortable. Then they, each one of them, look at the man, and they all know. They absolutely know. He is, in purest form, serious.

Suddenly the regret and agony of how they have just acted washes over them. These are not men that cry, but their faces grow chalk-white. They shuffle their worn tennis shoes and wipe their nose on the sleeve of a shirt they haven’t worn since they first served their sentence so long ago.

And then one man says, in a voice nobody has heard from him before, “I’ll go.”

And another man stammers, “I’ll go, too!”

None of them care about the money they may or may not be making. They don’t care at all if they make a single penny. It’s the honor this man has given them. That’s why they go. That’s why a few of them swallow a lump in their throat. That’s why the walk over is totally quiet and absolutely reflective.

You’d think because they were hardened criminals that they’d go all scattered out, broad shouldered. But they walk close together like scared kittens, not sure what the other workers will think of them, sure, but mostly because they are in utter shock. These are men who believe dreams don’t come true. And yet here they are, working for the wealthiest man in the county, because he believes they can do his work. Because he wants them, specifically, and no one has ever wanted them, generically, much less as the individual souls they are somewhere underneath the burden of all their regrets.

They start to work shyly, without a sound. This time, the men in suits have eyes that grow as wide as saucers, and they shrink back in terror. They decide it’s time to go inside the headquarters building and add figures. The second workers, the ones who haven’t made much of their lives, are a bit more understanding of what’s been done for them, but they are equally worried about their personal safety. They work in another part of the field and hope the distance between them is respected.

The third set of workers, the drop-outs and the one still hazy from the marijuana, stand totally still for a minute. Then, suddenly—and some say the high one started it—they burst out in applause.

The day is almost over. The released prisoners know they don’t have a moment to waste. They work like machines. They don’t really know what they are doing and yet, somehow, their productivity and skill is absolutely eloquently astonishing. They do what they never even knew they could do as if they were born for it. And that’s exactly what they are beginning to believe.

The loudspeakers on the telephone poles blast a closing tone, and then a reminder for everyone to come to the office for their pay.

The men in suits rush out of the building and brave their way past even the prisoners so they can get to be first in line. As scared as they are of these prisoners, they are ecstatic to rush home and tell their families what an amazing day they had, and how they can afford that new dress for her and that new swing set for the kids and maybe even that new platinum TV for themselves (a.k.a., ‘the whole family’) they’ve been dreaming about for so long.

No one is pushing to get in front of them. Rather quietly, and more respectfully, the second group of workers walk up to the president’s office and line up behind the suited men. These workers have always felt they couldn’t find their place in the world, until today. They sigh in satisfaction, text their wives and mostly girlfriends (because they can’t wait to tell until they get home) and think of all the popcorn and candy they are going to be able to buy their kids. They glance at the prisoners, to make sure they’re not getting too close. (They aren’t.)

The third group, the drop-outs, come out just plain grinning. They’ve had the best day of their lives. They stand in line talking about how they’re going to come to work tomorrow better prepared. They straighten their shirts and talk about things they’ve never talked about before, like Where does someone get a suit anyway? And, when someone from the second group answers, What is Dillard’s?

A few of the drop-outs turn around to see if the prisoners are coming over, but not because they’re afraid. They just want to talk to them, pat them on the back. The prisoners, however, are still quietly in the field. They’ve respectfully stopped their work, but they stand lingering, looking around awkwardly at everything except the other workers.

“Good job today,” one of the drop-out calls out to them. He quickly drops his head when a man in a suit and tie glowers at him.

And this leaves the prisoners alone. They end their day like they started their day. They have absolutely no idea what to do. They stand around waiting for further instructions. They want to just leave—they certainly know they’re not getting any pay for the little bit of work they were able to get down in such a short time. But they also don’t want to disobey the orders of the loudspeaker. After all, there is no one in the whole world they respect or revere like they do the president, their president.

There’s an unspoken longing in their eyes. Did they possibly do enough to get to come back to work tomorrow?

The president steps out of his office, and there is a wad of cash in his hands so thick everyone’s knees shake. To top it off, his assistant is holding a large cloth bag, and everyone is sure it is more cash.

The suited man first in line immediately steps forward and extends his hand, grinning deliriously.

But the president turns away from him, and looks right straight at the prisoners.

Every worker’s mouth falls open as he invites them to come stand before him. To be first.

The only justification the prisoners can think for this in their mind is that he must be going to either tell them they can come back the next day or fire them, but he’s certainly not going to pay them. They struggle to get in an orderly line. None of them wants to be first. None of them feel worthy of looking the president eye to eye.

When they finally get in a line (and the other “line” has completely broken up as everyone is reeling from what is happening), the president hands the first bundle of cash in his hand to the first prisoner. He nearly falls over. Suddenly, tears he’s never cried come to his eyes as he bows his head and shuffles away—not ashamed, but totally humbled.

The second prisoner falls to his knees when he gets his bundle of cash. The third drops his and fumbles to pick it up. One by one, they each take more cash than they’ve ever even seen in their lives. All their drug cartels and every bit of pimping they’ve done in the past began fading away the moment they started work for this man. Now, even the memory of it is gone. This cash is far more than money to them. They are holding onto their new lives.

The high school drop-outs suddenly collect themselves and burst into applause. A little clumsily and quite humbly, the prisoners begin to bow and beam. The high school drop-outs are still talking about what happened, slapping each other on the back, and wiping tears from their eyes as the president calls them up next.

The president reaches in the cloth bag for more money, since he’s all out. While they are paid, high fiving each other, jumping up in the air, and forgetting all about how they were trying to cover their tattoos, the men in suits begin to fidget. Things certainly haven’t gone how they expected.

“This has been one weird day,” one of them murmurs to another.

“You’re telling me.”

“But can you imagine what we are going to be paid?”

This thought hadn’t crossed most of their minds. Nothing, in fact, for the past few minutes, has crossed their minds other than total confusion. But now that the man mentions it, they begin to think. Who, after all, was in the financial office budgeting earlier that day? Only them. Who, after all, are the only college graduates of the group? Wasn’t it them? Who, after all, had the only real job experience of the crew? Wasn’t it them? Who, after all, really knew what they were doing that day? Wasn’t it them? Who had been the most productive? Wasn’t it them? And who had worked the longest? WASN’T IT THEM?

Suddenly their shock is replaced by glee. They begin rubbing their hands together, calculating figures in their head, and shuffling their feet in impatience. Surely it will be their turn soon.

The second group, who has found their purpose in life, is invited up next.

“Of course,” the man in the suit and tie murmurs. “Of course we’re last. We’re getting the most.”

The men in the second group are beginning to get the picture of what’s going on. They tilt their heads a little as they accept their pay but then each and every one of them goes over to congratulate the prisoners.

And now, at last, it’s the men in suits turn. They form a fighting line, each one zealous to be first. Finally, they are all poised, straight as an arrow. Once again, the man first in line steps forward and extends his hand.

The president gives them a smile they don’t understand, and then . .

He hands the man the exact, precise, perfectly same amount of cash . . as everybody else got.

The men in suits are stunned. They gawk. They gripe. They snort. They growl. They cross their arms.

And then the president asks them questions that pierce their arrogant bubble.

Didn’t he promise this exact, precise, perfectly same amount of cash to each one of them?

Were they resentful that he could do whatever he wanted with his money?

Were they angry that he wanted to boost the reputation of the criminals?

And then there was the secret question that thudded in their hearts.

Hadn’t they been unemployed, too?

We don’t know what happened next.

I think the men in suits stood still for a very long time.

And then I think they tightened their loosened ties, straightened their suit jackets, brushed off their shoes, and went over to shake the hands of the prisoners.

Published in: on September 25, 2014 at 8:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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A question.

How much of what I do has eternal value? And what do I think the part that doesn’t is going to be useful for?

Published in: on August 5, 2014 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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