This final post of 2014 is the first in a series on personal change from the inside, out. It begins with a short story I heard long ago that left an impression on me. I don’t remember who told it to me or the exact details of the tale, so I’ve taken some creative license to tell it as I see it in my mind.*
This is the story of Howard.
* * *
There lived a man who was a long-time member of a large, firmly rooted church. Not only was the man dedicated spiritually, having been a regular attendee for decades, but he was dedicated in sweat, too; truly, he considered the church building his second home. He would volunteer when he could for special events on weekends and come in during the week, after work, when nobody else was around, to vacuum and clean the sanctuary and offices in peaceful quiet.
He was such a cornerstone to the efforts of the church that the pastor issued him a key to the building and, of the one thousand more or less regular attending members, almost every one of them knew him by name.
This man’s name was Howard.
Howard was seventy-two with no family or pets, and happily so. He lived simply in a one bedroom apartment centered in town and split his time between managing a small nursery and garden supply store, his church, and the occasional extended vacation to somewhere far away and exotic. He enjoyed seeing other places, but, at heart, Howard was a homebody; he didn’t like going out to eat, to watch movies, to attend sports events, or even to hunt or fish. He enjoyed his privacy, his quiet moments, and spent hours constructing an intricate tiny village and HO model train station in his basement.
On an especially bright Sunday morning Howard awoke to go to church as usual. He arose from bed, dressed in his Sunday Best, and headed out the door at precisely 9:00 AM, bookmarked Bible and steaming coffee in hand.
All the while at the church, the greeters were positioning themselves at their respective doors, gripping their stacks of pamphlets and the day’s service schedule. The building had three entry doors and three greeters. It had become a game of sorts between them to bet on who would be the one to exchange good mornings with Howard and give him the day’s handouts. The winner got a free coffee from the church café.
At 9:15 AM, the people starting coming. First in spots of one or two, then, by 9:30, they arrived in larger, louder groups. By 9:45, throngs crowded the hall inside and concrete patio outside, waiting in chatty, unorganized lines to receive their handouts and be ushered into the sanctuary to their usual seats, the ones who had been displaced by newcomers grumbling to themselves as they relocated.
Service began, as always, at 10am-sharp, as the worship leader welcomed the congregation with a short prayer.
But Howard never arrived.
The greeters, as usual, waited outside the extra fifteen minutes for stragglers and latecomers. They glanced between one another, exchanging commentary, as time ticked forward.
“You?” one said.
“Not through my door,” said another, frowning and looking to the third.
The last shook his head and, with a crooked shrug, said “Nope. Not here.”
At 10:15 the greeters abandoned their posts and went inside to join the others.
When service ended at 11:30, the greeters returned to their posts, pamphlet-free, to hold open the doors for the dismissed congregation as they dispersed out into the world, ready to take on their weeks with refreshed faith and evangelical fervor. The greeters shook hands, kissed babies, high-fived kids, hugged friends and waved goodbye to strangers until the crowd diminished to only a few lingering bodies standing around catching up and making confused, indecisive arrangements for lunch.
The last greeter, a twenty-something college student, was closing his door to lock up when a familiar voice called out hello from behind him. It was Howard. The greeter’s face glowed with relief to find the man hadn’t suffered some tragedy since last week’s service.
The greeter approached Howard, holding out a hand and shaking Howard’s firmly. “We missed you today,” he said. “What happened?”
Howard smiled, the corners of his eyes creasing. “Well,” he started in his slow, weathered baritone. “I was on my way when I saw a minivan stopped on the side of the road with a flat. The woman handling the tire iron looked like she was having a rough time of it, so I pulled over. She and her three kids were headed to breakfast with her parents when the tire blew. I took over but,” Howard shrugged, “come to find out their spare was flat, too, so I threw the spare into my truck bed, piled them into the cab, and dropped them off at the diner while I went to the gas station to fill the tire. Of course I had to wait for them to finish their breakfast, so I waited at the diner bar and had some coffee and read the Good Book. When they finished up I drove them back to their car, put on the spare, and we went our separate ways.”
The young man smiled ear to ear. “Well, what a nice thing you did! But,” his brows furrowed, “couldn’t you have called triple-A or something? All that time and effort you put in. Besides, you missed church!”
Howard’s grin collapsed into blankness, his eyes locked on the young man’s face. After a shallow sigh, he licked then pursed his lips a little, leaning forward toward his companion just slightly. The greeter’s eyes widened.
“Son,” Howard said sternly, “I absolutely did NOT miss church.”
* * *
I hope this story will leave a mark with you as it did for me. I remember it often as I’m rushing to and fro with chores and tasks, the hours in the day flying by as if they had hardly existed at all. And time is that way, fleeting. We are so busy in our day-to-day lives, so focused on goals, on maintaining a certain schedule, and with specific expectations for the day, we often forget who and what we’re here for: to love one another.
We are so busy in our day-to-day lives we often forget what we’re here for: to love one another.
In Howard’s story, everyone had their expectation for what would happen on any given Sunday. The greeters had a schedule of when to open their doors, how long they were to wait, which pamphlets to hand out, and when to close and open the doors again. The churchgoers had their schedules, too: when to arrive, where to sit, who to see, and where to go to lunch after service. And, of course, Howard himself was on something of a dedicated schedule.
People like schedules; they like regularity and like knowing what to expect and when to expect it. It gives us ease. But, when life happens and disrupts our cycle, we tend to feel annoyed or threatened. When the church attendants in the story were forced to relocate from their usual, planned seats, they grumbled. When the greeters didn’t see Howard arrive as he usually did, they worried, fearing the worst.
A change in plan can occur as the result of something as small as our alarm clocks not going off or something biggler, like getting stuck in traffic, or even something huge, like a death in the family. (In a story I’ll share with you in Making Change: Part 2, a change in my plans occurred because I wasn’t served my food at a restaurant on time.)
As we drift head-on into 2015, I challenge you to be open to your plans being remade, not by you, but by the One who ultimately makes them. Consider that…
…accidents aren’t always accidents…
…disruptions can be opportunities…
…and delays could be saving you from something dangerous up ahead.
I’ll share my story of a car accident I had back in 2012 at a later time and how it relates to the third on this list, but I hope you’ll consider Howard’s story as you step into your [undoubtedly well-planned] New Year.
Here’s to making change in 2015.
Thanks to photographer Hisks at FreeImages.com for the use of their road sign photo.
*If anyone knows the origin of this story, please let me know by email (email@example.com) so I can make proper corrections and attributions. Thanks!