Love lives in sealed bottles of regret.
I did something one weekend of which I am ashamed. I did something I can never take back and something for which I can never be sure of the ramifications.
It was a crisp Saturday morning in October, the kind when you want to sink under the covers in bed for a few extra minutes. That morning, however, we were up and at ’em because we had somewhere to be: the Baylor Homecoming parade. This was not your average parade; this parade, one we had attended each year for more than a decade, was touted as the largest and longest homecoming parade in the nation. Whatever had been said about it, for the little town of Waco, it was a big deal. Even if you had nothing to do with Baylor University the rest of the year, chances are, if you lived in Waco, you brought your kids out for a chance to catch Tootsie Rolls and get an early start on their Halloween sugar high. There were always many alumni as well from all over the country who returned to enjoy memories of their college days or show their kids where Mommy and Daddy met. Whatever the reason for attending it, the parade was quite an event in the little Central Texas town. I mean, who wouldn’t enjoy an hour-long procession of cheerleaders, faculty, funny little cars driven by Shriners, small high school bands, and fraternity floats made of chicken wire and crepe paper? Envisioning such fun, we all got up early on a Saturday, bundled up our children, and waited expectantly along the parade route.
My husband and I had been going to the same spot to watch the parade for years. We hadn’t let our secret out to many people, but our spot was right in front of the Bank of America on Austin Avenue. It was early in the parade route, so most of the people in the parade were still excited about waving to you (and they still had candy to throw). Some years, the bank even gave out free hot chocolate, donuts, and balloons. Matt and I had set up our rickety lawn chairs there since before we were married. Some years we would go with a bunch of friends, and sometimes we went on our own. I don’t think we ever dreamed that we’d bring our daughter to the parade one day, but there we were one October, proud alums coming home with our little Baylor bear cub. Although I couldn’t bring myself to put Lucy in one of those baby cheerleader outfits, I made sure she was properly dressed in her green and gold attire alongside her parents. (Never mind that you couldn’t really see her school spirit under her coat.) We were ready for the parade to begin.
That’s when it happened. A young family with three children came and stood right in front of our chairs, between us and the parade. It was a nice little family, and, from the look of their non-green and gold clothes, probably not alumni but a family from town coming out to enjoy the sights. Great, I thought. We’re not going to be able to see anything. The three children had their plastic bags ready for candy gathering, and they showed no signs of moving down the route. The young mother turned around and met my eyes, and that’s when I did the act of which I am so ashamed: I gave her a tight-lipped smile. This was not the kind of smile I had given to the other people around me that morning; it was a smile that said, “Your kids are in our way.”
As soon as my face unformed, I was ashamed of what I had done. What a passive/aggressive thing to do, I reprimanded myself. As the parade started and candy began to fly through the air, I saw that my “smile” had its desired effect: the mother whispered something to the father, and the father called the children over to the side and out of our way. I didn’t know if I should go apologize or forget it. After all, we could see the parade now. As gleaming band instruments and clowns went by, my horror at what I had done grew. What was more, the father, who was cheerful and smiley, kept offering candy he caught to my daughter. I tried to be extra friendly, to say, “Thanks so much, but she’s too young to eat it,” but, of course, I felt worse. He probably wasn’t purposefully cloaking my sin, but I sure felt the rebuke. Wasn’t I supposed to be a Christian? Wasn’t I supposed to be the one who did good?
As float after float passed, I thought about my tight-lipped smile, and how it was the wrong thing to do on so many levels. What was my problem, anyway? Did I really think that three 3-foot-tall kids were blocking our view of the parade, complete with 20-foot floats and 75-foot-high balloon animals? And what was so wrong with them standing in front of my daughter? At that age, she got excited just watching the ceiling fan go around and probably would have been tickled to watch the older kids catch candy. She didn’t even know about parade candy yet, so she wouldn’t have cared if she’d gone home without one piece. No, not even Lucy was an excuse for my behavior this time; the selfishness was all Mom’s problem.
The fire engines interrupted my reverie, rounding up the end of the parade with a blast of their sirens that sent Lucy into a panic. When she was calm, I looked around and realized that the family next to us had left. We packed up our chairs and headed back to the Honda, having had a full morning.
You might be thinking, “Wow, Holly. I can’t believe you were so unkind. I am putting your book down and will never again read anything you write.” Or you might be saying, “Holly: Three words: Get. Over. It.” If you are thinking the latter, don’t let me off the hook so easily. I haven’t quite let myself off yet. I really noticed my behavior that day. I noticed how it made me feel. I noticed how I think it made them feel. And I noticed that the master of divinity degree I have hanging on my wall didn’t mean much when it came to mastering my own selfishness.
The lesson I learned that day was not that I wasn’t perfect; I’ve known that and knew it then. I noticed how quickly a minute inconvenience brought out the worst in me. I noticed how, in an instant, one tiny action did tremendous injustice to who Christ is. How, you say? Well, I hardly needed to identify myself as a Christian before this family. I was dressed in green and gold, looking like an alumna of the largest Baptist university in the world. And, while Baylor University and Christianity are not always synonymous, in this part of the Bible Belt, this little family could easily assume that I was at least “religious.” From the moment that tight-lipped smile left my lips, I damaged their idea of what someone who follows Christ is like. At that moment, I was an obstacle for this family’s ability to understand who Christ is, if they didn’t know him already. While cognitively I had devoted my life to uncovering Christ in our world, I had in actuality let a parade—no, my own interests—obscure him and damage his character.
Paul talks to the Corinthian Christ followers about this in the tenth chapter of the second letter he wrote to them. He is clarifying their purpose, advising them to employ the grace they’ve received from Christ for things like “smashing warped philosophies, tearing down barriers erected against the truth of God.” (2 Cor 10:2-5, The Message) This first part of the passage is almost like a high school fight song or a rocking motivational anthem, isn’t it? Yes, we Christians are all about smashing the world’s warped philosophies in Christ’s name! We long to tear down the barriers that prevent people from knowing the true Christ. For me, all of these big, societal issues come to mind: illiteracy, HIV/AIDS, the sex trade, lack of access to medical care and pharmaceuticals. Yes! We are to use the grace we receive in our relationship with Christ to share grace in the lives of others. Let’s go! (I hear “The Eye of the Tiger” playing right now in the background.)
However, the thing I noticed that Saturday at the parade was that obstructions to Christ aren’t just big issues like slavery and one-child policies in other countries. I noticed that obstructions are also selfish sins we don’t master in our own lives, such as purposely unfriendly smiles. I noticed that my game-day play did not match the plays in the playbook I said I would follow. The next part of Paul’s advice to the Corinthians says Christians should be “fitting every loose thought and emotion and impulse into the structure of life shaped by Christ.” Had I remembered this on parade day, had I noticed my own selfish impulses and taken the time to sift them through Christ and his teachings, I could have kept those desires from obstructing this family’s knowledge of who Christ is. Yes, our goal as Christians should be to do away with the things in our world that keep people from knowing the love and freedom of Christ. Equally, and maybe more so, our goal should be noticing and doing away with the things in our own lives that keep people from understanding Christ as well. After all, don’t the systemic injustices usually grow from the individual ones?
If we take the time, we Christians will notice that the “warped philosophies” Paul was talking about still exist in our lives. If I look around my world, I notice that I still erect barriers against the truth of God, both willingly and unwillingly, in the quickest of moments. Praise be to God that the grace of Christ provides forgiveness for all, including us. He is the means and the motivation for sharing this hope and life with others. Christ’s life in ours gives us the ability to rid our own lives of that which would obscure him. As Paul says, “Our tools are ready at hand for clearing the ground of every obstruction and building lives of obedience into maturity.” May we be faithful to examine, tear down, and prepare the way of the Lord. May we be faithful to observe our own lives, be humble enough to admit our sins, and resilient enough to let God realign us toward his purposes.
Learning the Art of Noticing
1. At the end of the day, think back and notice whether any of the choices you made today obstructed Christ.
2. We can erect barriers against the truth of God in the quickest of moments. Think of a verse of Scripture or something that God has recently spoken to you that you can take with you today, bringing it to mind in those quickest of moments.
This originally appeared as chapter 6 in Faith Postures: Cultivating Christian Mindfulness by Holly Sprink.