Thursday, March 15

Doing Our Job

Yesterday I started a fight. I didn't intend to, but I did. For a second or two, I thought it might be the sort of fight that comes to blows, but thankfully, it didn't reach that point. Perhaps you're thinking that this is going to be a story about a couple of young boys—we all know how quickly they can start tussling with each other—but you would be wrong. Nope, this is a story about two grown men, one a hothead and one a gentleman, at the supermarket checkout.

The biggest local supermarket has been short staffed for a long time. That means there are never enough cashiers for the number of shoppers waiting to check out, and this makes for long lines and long waits to buy food. It's predictable by now, but that only makes it more frustrating rather than less, because shoppers arrive at the store expecting things to go badly.

So yesterday I did a little grocery shopping. The line I waited in was surprisingly short. There was only one grocery cart ahead of me—the one of the man who would prove to be a hothead. He checked through without a hitch, paid for his groceries, and began to bag them.

I was next. However, both sides of the checkout stand were full of groceries—the hothead's groceries on my side, and the gentleman's on the other. Since I had just a few items, and by now there was a long line of carts waiting behind me, I told the young cashier that I'd bag my groceries and put them directly into my cart as he checked them through.

Unfortunately, I missed a loaf of bread, and it went scooting on down the line and touched one of the hothead's grocery items. Instead of being angry with me, he became angry at the checkout boy, and he was just a boy. Hothead began yelling at the cashier, and they were vile things he said--the sorts of words intended to be personally hurtful and threatening, not just words expressing frustration or forming a complaint.

The checkout boy said nothing. I don't think he knew how to respond. I was standing right next to the hothead, and it scared me, and I'll admit that I didn't know how to respond. But the gentleman did respond.

He said something like this: "We're all frustrated. We want to get our groceries and get out of here, just like you. There's no need to take it out on this young man. He's just doing his job. Go ahead and complain to the store manager that there aren't enough check-outs open and so you were rushed through. But it's not his fault, so don't yell at him. And there's no need to use the sort of offensive language you are using."

This is the point where things almost came to blows. This hothead didn't like it much that someone had stood up to him. He actually began to move toward the gentleman, but retreated, grabbed his groceries and stormed out of the store.

The incident stayed with me all of yesterday afternoon. It was upsetting. But it was a whole lot less upsetting because someone had acted to stop the threats and mitigate some of the damage they might cause. The gentleman did a good thing.

There's a purpose for telling you this story. Things like this, some less shocking and some way more so, happen all the time. There's an ugly thread weaving through the tapestry of life in this world, a flawed thread that spoils the beauty of whole cloth. Something's quite wrong with things, and we're constantly reminded of it.

The only complete answer is re-creation of the whole cloth—re-creation of flawed human beings and re-creation of a cursed universe—and re-creation isn't something within our power. But the God who cursed, and who will eventually re-create, is also merciful in the here and now. The God who judged creation with perpetual thorns and thistles and will someday redeem the whole of it with a glorious new creation, also graces it presently with sun and rain. The God who intentionally allows each generation to come into the world as natural born wrongdoers and who will, in the end, create a whole new humanity unmarred by sinfulness, also graciously institutes governments right now for the purpose of restraining wrongdoers and encouraging good conduct. God has judged, but at the same time, he is merciful.

And here's where we come in. We are to be merciful as he is merciful. As we work to alleviate the hurt caused by the curse of sin in the world, we are agents of God's mercy toward a world that's turned against him. As sons and daughters of a merciful Father, it's our job to do what we can to mitigate the damage the ugly thread of sin causes in the tapestry of creation, too.

Yes, it may seem futile, since our effort is never completely successful and sometimes it appears as if it does nothing at all. It's easy to grow discouraged. The hug to the mother who lost her 11 month old son after he endured ten surgeries in ten months is entirely inadequate when compared to the depth of her suffering. Yet, in a way that only those who have been through something like it can understand, that hug can a significant light in the darkness. It's not enough, but it's not nothing, either. And it's our job.

Just as it was Adam's job to till the thorns and thistles in order to eat plants grown in the cursed soil, to sweat in order to eat bread, it's our job to work, sweat, and suffer to restrain as much evil and bring as much good into this fallen world as we can. Of top priority, of course, is the gospel, which is a fuller answer to the cursedness than standing up to bullies or hugging a grieving mother. But the God who sent his Son and commissioned us to make disciples also told us to be merciful as he is merciful, and that includes mitigating the effects of wrongdoing and injustice, and alleviating the suffering caused by the curse of sin.