Thursday, February 17, 2011

Busted on the Bottom

I failed a “mystery shop” on the job last week.

The company routinely sends “secret shoppers” throughout the store to ensure that all employees are doing their jobs in the prescribed manner, and as part of that procedure a shopper came through my checkout lane to have her order processed. Apparently I failed to ask a required question, offering my assistance with any items on the bottom of the bascart.

It wasn’t just a personal failure; it affected the score for the entire store. Although they were all very nice about it, several superiors, including the store manager herself, mentioned it to me. Conscientious though I am about asking the question, I clearly didn’t do so this one time that counted, and so had to sign a write up for the incident, indicating that I understood the requirement was that I ask the BOB question every time a shopper comes through my line. Simple though my job is, I enjoy it tremendously and it’s important to me that I do it well. I was crushed.

My boss had mentioned that I’d been working with a particular bagger at the time, one who is a special friend and with whom I’ve received great ratings in the past. When I told her later what had happened this time around, her eyes widened in surprise and she said, “I remember that order! Don’t you?! You said, ‘I forgot to ask that lady the bottom-of-the-bascart question. She’s probably the mystery shopper.’”!

Suddenly I did remember saying those very words, and could’ve kicked myself for speaking the situation out of my own mouth! Perhaps you’re thinking that the shopper in question would’ve been the examiner whether I’d verbally declared her to be so or not, and while that’s very likely the case, the irony of the situation made me laugh, which at least made me feel better about things as I went on with my day.

For some reason, failures are easier to bear when they have a lesson attached to them in some way, and I found that the value in this episode had nothing to do with the grocery store at all. It was the activity of my tongue which was in question. Words of wisdom found in Proverbs 18:21 came quickly to mind: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue…” Simply put, our words matter, and what we verbally declare over our loved ones, our lives, and ourselves affects our future more than we can possibly imagine.

Discouragement followed that thought, as I felt unable to watch every word that comes out of my mouth, so often do they come out almost without conscious thought. Clearly that is what God wants to change. Just as quickly did I realize that I am unable to right the situation on my own; He simply has to help me. I pray daily that God would place a guard over what comes out of my mouth; perhaps opening my eyes to the problem in such a creative way is the first step in that very process.

But it’s not always the words that come out of my mouth that are the problem; as in the shopping scenario described above, often it’s the words that don’t. There are many times apart from when I’m behind a cash register that I think of questions I should but don’t ask. For example, I sometimes avoid asking, “What’s going on?” to a person I’m afraid might just tell me when I’m short on time or interest. I might leave out the necessary, “Can I pray for you?” at the end of some such recitals, for fear of attracting too much attention or embarrassing the confidant. And my reluctance sometimes to ask, “Do you know Jesus?” makes me wonder at times if I really do, either. And yet I know that life is found in the power of the tongue that leads people into a relationship with God.

The paragraphs above were already typed into the computer when God penned a special postscript to them a few days later. Once again I was at work and had just thanked a family for shopping with us when I saw them head to the customer service desk instead of out the door. I hoped it was only my imagination when I heard my name mentioned, but my heart sank when I saw an assistant store manager approach my check lane a short time later to pull me aside and speak to me privately.

“A complaint has been filed against you,” he began, “but before we talk about it I just want to say thank you.” Thoroughly confused, I could only look at him for an explanation. Thankfully, this time I had remembered to ask the shoppers about the bottom of their cart (whew!), but the question had offended them. They thought I was insinuating that they were trying to steal something and wanted to assure the management that they’d never stolen anything before and didn’t plan to start now. Quickly it was explained to them that asking the question is company policy in an attempt to stem the flow of unpurchased stock left unnoticed on the bottom of the carts, a loss due more to simple employee inattention than suspected customer theft.

Similarly there are times when people will react negatively to questions God wants us to ask. Their response does not negate the need to ask the question; it only indicates a lack of understanding of God’s purposes and a misjudgment on the intent of His heart. He wants the door to communication with Him to be opened, whether the subjects choose to walk through it or slam it shut. My job is simply to open the conversation.

My bagger friend was bothered to find that the failure with the BOB question was still on my mind a few days after the fact. We both know that there will be many more mystery shops and ample opportunities to ask all the right questions. But that is not necessarily the case with people whom God brings across my path on a day-to-day basis. Only He knows what their future holds, what they might be contemplating or what might happen to them the minute they walk again out of my life. My silence in that scenario might have consequences far more serious than a simple write up in my file.

How like God that He got my attention on a matter He wanted to discuss by weaving it into something that is very important to me - the pride and joy I take in my job. He reminds me that He did so only because it concerns something that is very important to Him - the pride and joy He takes in me.

“ …‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.’”

(Hebrews 12: 5-6 NIV)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Caffeinated Comfort

"Take comfort in rituals."

That simple message on the door to the local Starbucks coffee outlet stopped me for a minute before I smiled to myself and pushed it open to do just that. Picking up a coffee treat and maybe even a baked snack to take with me on my monthly visit to the nearby state park is a ritual I’ve found comfort in for more years than I care to count. And far from getting bored with the routine, I find myself enjoying it more and more as the months and years I indulge in it continue to mount.

Many in my circle of family and friends believe that my life is dominated by “rules” I’ve made for myself that dictate my activities and supposedly limit my freedom to live life as I please. But I consider them merely guidelines I follow for healthy and happy living, and include among them some time-tested experiences that have brought me enough joy in days gone by to be repeated on a regular basis. And it seems to me that I accumulate more of them all the time. 

I’ve come to realize that an unfortunate number of them center around food (high on the list are coffee treats on my days off and breakfast-with-a-friend at any and every opportunity) and are a big part of the reason I find it difficult to diet. But just as many are simply activities I engage in regularly to break the monotony of daily living and ensure that I‘m adding some zest and joy of life to my existence on a regular basis. They are as necessary to my mental and physical health as any of my various doctor appointments, and I find that I keep them with greater regularity and determination. In fact, I have to purposely schedule the less-pleasant duties of life into the hours of my day or I’d simply spend all my free time having fun.

I sometimes wonder if the items on my list are nothing more than selfish indulgences I allow myself, or if there is really something more to them than that. The word comfort in the message on the door is what caught my attention earlier in the day. Take comfort in rituals, it read. Perhaps the reason I’m increasingly devoted to my “rituals” is that my heart needs more comforting now than in days gone by.

It was as I was settling back in my car that morning, my coffee steaming in the cup holder beside me and a slice of lemon pound cake carefully wrapped in a white bag by my side, that I spotted a frail and sickly-looking woman heading for the coffee bar I’d just exited. Her head wrapped in a turban that seemed to indicate the absence of hair, I imagined her to be in the midst of cancer treatments of some sort. My eyes followed her painfully slow progress across the street and I could feel in my own arms the effort it cost her to push open the door, but with purpose and determination she made her way inside. I was struck by her commitment to a caffeine-related ritual she was clearly taking comfort in…an act of defiance perhaps against this disease that was threatening her, or an attempt to bring some sense of normalcy to a life spinning rapidly out of control. I hoped she’d find pleasure in her action despite possibly drug-disordered taste buds and uncertain stomach stability. Perhaps of all the treatments she was enduring, this devotion to her routine was the most beneficial of all. Inspired by her courage I continued with the morning I’d planned and appreciated it all the more.

We live in desperate times of economic uncertainty, worldwide unrest and the threat of terror on every level of our lives. We deal with everything from day to day details that are disrupted by minor disturbances, to adjusting to more momentous life changes, to coping with life-threatening health scares or natural disasters of one type or another. Is it any wonder our hearts reach for comfort whenever and wherever they can find it?

Perhaps that’s why Jesus advised us to take comfort in some simple practices that were to be repeated on a regular basis…rituals if you will… that He knew we’d not only take pleasure in when our lives were going well, but that would be especially helpful to our hurting hearts when times were tough. They range from the simple but overwhelmingly powerful practice of prayer, talking to God about everything from joys to sorrows, worries to wonders, questions to complaints…to reading His Word and finding peace in the sound of His voice… to gathering together for encouragement and inspiration on at least a weekly basis. 

Perhaps it’s my attraction to food that draws me to one other ritual in particular, that of sharing communion with one another in remembrance of Him. What greater comfort can there be than to partake of the bread and fruit of the grape together, remembering what Jesus has done for us in the past and His promise of an eternity of fellowship with Him in the future? In a way it’s a reminder to include Him in every activity, to be aware of His presence in our hearts now and to remember that we are never alone in any of the circumstances we find ourselves, whatever their nature. There is no greater peace than that found in the presence of our Shepherd and King.

So devote yourself wholeheartedly to whatever life celebrations you’ve established…just remember to invite your Savior to savor them with you. And if you haven’t yet developed any special rituals of your own, perhaps it’s time to begin.

Starbucks is simply a great place to start. 
“And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’”
(Luke 22:19)
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