I’m reminded of how terrible middle school was anytime I find my life precipitously close to being snuffed out by a suddenly reversing luxury SUV-- who’s sticker tag is just a shade north of at least 2 years worth of my old salary-- as I try and wrangle shopping carts in the parking lot of my retail grocery gig.
“Easy Marie Antionette, instead of killing the will of the proletariat slowly through regressive legislation, tax loopholes for the 1 percent, and school rezoning, you might actually kill an hourly worker right now because you’re staring at your phone whilst your chariot rolls indiscriminately backwards. “
-Me, grumbling to myself before smiling and bagging her groceries 30 minutes later while she vividly recounts to me the results of her recent colonoscopy.
It’s incredibly easy to find snobbish disdain and righteous indignation welling up within me anytime someone refers to me as “CASHIER!,” or when customers warily eye me as I harmlessly give their kids 45 stickers at the register, or when people ask me if we had Christmas morning off so they can give me the knowing: “well, good for you honey, you deserve a break, AND I TOLD YOU I WANTED ALL MY COLD ITEMS IN THE SAME BAG!,” or when people I’ve known for years can have conversations with me for 20 minutes and not realize it’s me, Eric, remember, I graduated with your daughter, am wearing a name tag, and have peed in your guest bathroom probably like 3 times (and now totally regret politely flushing each time).
If you’ve ever worked retail, at this point you’re probably already standing atop your desk, ripping the introductions from your textbooks, and screaming WHO’S THE WILDMAN NOW, RUETTIGER!*
(*NOTE: Yes, I did mashup Dead Poets Society and Rudy, why has no one thought to do this before now?)
But that’s not really what I want you take away from this.
Sometimes people are unbearable, especially when they’re paying for something. This is an inescapable fact of life, and not all that interesting to write about. What’s more interesting is why it bothers me so much to be on the receiving end of such treatment (treatment, mind you, I have inevitably dished out to others before now).
Speaking of people being unbearable, let’s talk about middle school!
“You will never find a more wretched hide of scum and villainy, we must be cautious.”
-Obi Wan Kenobi, on his first day in 7th grade
When you combine soul-crushing anxiety, weird bodily smells, puberty, a growing interest in the opposite sex, Abercrombie cargo pants, and a desperate need to survive that can only be quenched by the sacrifice of anyone within view (best friends, beloved family pet, mom, dad, grandparent, etc.) on the altar of your own fear that someone will notice the lip zit you have been brewing for the last 3 days: THE WORST EXPERIENCE OF ONE’S LIFE CAN’T BE TOO STRONG A DESCRIPTOR.*
(*NOTE: If middle school was pretty good for you, please know everyone was afraid of you and that you are probably a sociopath, SEEK HELP IMMEDIATELY).
Puberty and lip-zits aside, the thing at the bottom of everything else making middle school decidedly awful is that it’s a cinderblock hellscape ruled by fear and scarcity. Fear that you’ll be found out, or that you don’t actually have a girlfriend who goes to another school, or that your purse is a knockoff, or that your Adidas socks don’t match your Nike shoes, or that people will discover you don’t walk home and instead make your incredibly compassionate grandparents pick you up around the corner because you’re embarrassed of their 30 foot maroon Lincoln town car (this is all hypothetical, of course).
For many of us, the only solace is that middle school comes to an end, or at least it should have.
Then again, every time I feel my stomach tighten and my chest fill with anxious air because the customer before me doesn’t know that I USED TO BE A PASTOR, YOU KNOW, A MAN OF THE CLOTH WHO HAS GOD’S ACTUAL EMAIL AND NOT JUST THE HOTMAIL ACCOUNT GOD GIVES OUT TO WEBSITE SWEEPSTAKES AND ALL YOU NON-PROFESSIONALS! YOU WOULDN’T TALK TO ME LIKE THAT IF YOU KNEW THAT I HAVE A MASTERS DEGREE, AND I TRIED TO READ ONE OF JOHN RUSKIN’S BOOKS THREE DIFFERENT TIMES, AND I’VE SEEN VENICE AT NIGHT! AND YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW WHO JOHN RUSKIN IS, BUT I DO!
I realize middle school lives on again and again and again in the fear and scarcity ruling my heart and mind.
In the Hebrew scriptures there’s a rather odd tale describing the feeding plan God sets in motion for the recently-freed-from-slavery-Israelites during their wilderness traverse. The book of Exodus reminds us that during their travels from Egypt (a land of slavery, fear, and scarcity) to a land of their own (one flowing unendingly with milk and honey) the Israelites are sustained by what the text refers to as “manna” (a translation of a Hebrew phrase literally meaning: “what is it?”). Strangely, this substance appears each morning upon the ground for the Israelites to collect for that day's meals, if they attempt to stockpile more than enough manna for the day before them (or enough for the weekend on Fridays), it spoils in their tents.
When I first came upon this story, it seemed pretty straightforward: Israelites are hungry, God feeds them with weird ground substance from the sky while they wonder around for 40 years attempting to find their home, end of weird Biblical story. Maybe it’s simply because I’m in the grocery business now, but I find this story to be far more profound than I once did, as it almost seems God is teaching a group of people who’ve lived under the dual forces of fear and scarcity, who've been on the receiving end of incredible violence motivated by wealth and power, that life is about eating today rather than worrying about what one will eat tomorrow.
That life is about living for today, rather than living for tomorrow.
That life is about being full now, rather than being full tomorrow.
That life is about being okay now, instead of being okay sometime in the future.
In the harsh light of history, the promised land turned out to be a bit of a letdown for those wandering former slaves, not to mention, most of those actually spending their days munching manna in the desert never ended up experiencing it anyway.
They all died before they got there.
The promised land, like a carrot dragging them forward day after day after day never materialized, and it is precisely here that we learn just what kind of God we’re dealing with:
a God not of future punishments and rewards.
a God not of fear, scarcity, wealth, and anxious power.
but a God of dependability, patience, persistence, presence, and a dogged commitment to today, even if the next day never bothers to live up to the hype.
Maybe we could even say that this God is radically, fundamentally, unexpectedly okay.
Or, as Jesus put it in his Sermon on the Mount: "God is perfect".
God is full, complete, centered, content, and non-anxious because this God has enough for today.
The truly miraculous people filling our world aren’t those at the top of the ladder, or those furiously climbing the ladder, or those confidently dusting themselves off after falling off the ladder, or those tirelessly working to push and pull others further up the ladder, it’s those who, when asked about where they fit and what they're doing in this world remark:
“wait, there’s a ladder?”
In a world enslaved to anxiety and fear and scarcity and wealth and power, a world willing to sacrifice anyone on the altar of it’s security, the most dangerously necessary people are those radically okay with who they are, where they are, and why they are (and in turn, who are radically okay with who, where, and why you are). When we’re finally willing to gather only enough for today, without fear of what tomorrow brings, or who has more, or who made these rules at all, or when we’re finally going to make it to that place we were promised at the beginning of this journey, we don’t just find our pulse slowing and our stomach loosening,
we find that the promised land for which we’ve always longed has actually been the ground beneath our very feet the whole time.
And all God’s people said: “make sure to take your shoes off, I just vacuumed.”
*photo courtesy of Bob B. Brown: Creative Commons*